Category Archives: golf

Golf’s place in the Olympic club

 

olygolf

One truth about the Olympics is that it is not all things to all sports. A walk on the moon to competitors in some disciplines, the Olympics is just another road trip for others. Compare the potential payback for great champions in track and field or swimming—fame and fortune for a Usain Bolt or a Michael Phelps—to that in men’s soccer: Participating in the World Cup is far more prestigious. Or tennis: All four Grand Slam tournaments are significantly larger stages than the Games.

And now, for the first time since 1904, there will be Olympic golf this summer in Rio de Janeiro. Already several of that sport’s most prominent players have announced they will take an Olympic pass, including three ranked in the world’s top 20—Australia’s Adam Scott and South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel—as well as former No. 1 Vijay Singh of Fiji.

The going explanation for withdrawals is golf’s hectic, globetrotting schedule, which is packing three major championships into a six-week span from mid-June to late July—the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championships. The Olympic tournament is scheduled in mid-August.

Plus, there is the scarifying Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, specifically the reason cited by Marc Leishman, Australia’s No. 3 player and 35th in the world, in removing his name from Olympic consideration this week.

No one has yet declined to compete just because the new Rio course is built next to the Jacarepegua Lagoon. Jacare, in Portuguese, means “alligator,” and one of those eponymous reptiles recently was spotted on the links’ edge. There are reports that at least five biologists will be employed to move the imposing critters away from players and spectators during the Games. So that sort of water hazard might deserve consideration.

gator

When the International Olympic Committee voted in 2009 to bring back golf, last contested at the 1904 St. Louis Games, it might have weighed the priorities of modern-era pros already fabulously compensated by—and plenty busy with—their structured leagues and organizations.

Olympic basketball, with NBA players eligible since 1992, has worked pretty well because it is contested in the league’s off-season. Still, some stars—either of their own volition or leaned on by their full-time employers, as Latvia’s Kristaps Porzingis was by the Knicks this month—choose to eschew the Games’ potential for injury and fatigue.

Olympic hockey in the Winter Games, in spite of providing splendid TV ratings and magnificent drama since NHL players were welcomed in 1998, nevertheless has no guarantee of continued partnership with league owners. The Olympics interrupts the NHL schedule and, in 2014, ended Islander all-star John Tavares’ season because of a knee injury in Sochi.

Baseball, after five Olympic cycles as a full-medal sport during which it stirred little attention, didn’t last past the 2008 Games because Olympic panjandrums were frustrated by the complete lack of Major League talent and suspicion of the sport’s delayed efforts to fight doping.

Golf? It seemed an all-aboard-the-gravy-train vote for the IOC in 2009, because Tiger Woods was not only the sport’s top player then, but also one of the globe’s most familiar names, and surely a magnet for more TV and advertising revenue. Especially when Woods declared his eagerness to grace the 2016 Games with his presence and the British bookmaker William Hill immediately established him a 6-1 favorite to win the gold.

Alas, Woods’ dominance faded long ago. He hasn’t played at all in six months while recovering from back surgery. At this point, he could not come anywhere near qualifying for Rio, which will have fields of 60 men and 60 women, based on the world rankings in mid-July.

NBC’s Golf Channel has said it will air 300 hours, 130 of them live, of the Olympic tournament, and Olympic executive producer Jim Bell told Reuters that he believes players who skip the Games will soon regret it. But the reality is that no top pro needs the Olympics to be discovered. Or legitimized. Olympic stars are born in women’s gymnastics. Beach volleyball. Diving. Cycling. In the winter, they emerge in skiing and women’s figure skating.

So, with golf shaking off the Olympic cobwebs, 112 years since its last appearance, the more intriguing story (aside from the alligator watch), may be the glimpse of evolution—in both that sport and the Games in general.

In 1904, the Olympics was conducted under strict amateur rules. Its golf champion was 46-year-old Canadian George Lyon, who defeated 23-year-old U.S. amateur title-holder Chandler Egan in a match-play final. Lyon hadn’t taken up golf until he was 38, though his athletic feats included a Canadian record in the pole vault 10 years earlier and stardom in cricket, baseball and tennis.

(George Lyon)

(George Lyon)

The only other Olympic golf competition was in 1900 in Paris, when there were both men’s and women’s tournaments. American Charles Sands, who also participated in tennis at those Games, won the men’s gold. The women’s champ was Margaret Abbott, a 22-year-old Chicago socialite who died in 1955 unaware that her victory was part of the Olympic program. Ironic, according to David Wallechinskyi’s Complete Book of the Olympics, because Abbott is in the history books as the first U.S. woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal.

(Charles Sands)

(Charles Sands)

In a recent Facebook posting, Rio’s venue manager for the golf competition, Bob Condron, noted that “technology has changed a bit” since the sport’s previous Olympic adventures. “Hickory shafts have given way to graphite and titanium,” he wrote. “Feather-filled balls are now known as Titleist Pro VX and your third-grade nephew could hit one into the Pacific from Colorado. And the way the media works is a tad updated. Carrier pigeons and telegraph has been replaced by methods that get copy to the public faster than the mind works. Photos get to viewers before they happen.”

In those days, golfers hit not with clubs numbered 1 through 9, but with brassies, spoons, cleeks, mashies and niblicks.

Condron, I should note, spent years as the most competent—and witty—publicist for the U.S. Olympic Committee, a man who kept me educated and entertained through 11 Olympics. If anyone can elevate golf’s place in the pecking order of Olympic sports, Condron can.

But I submit that neither golf, nor the Games, gains (or indeed, needs) embellishment from the other. And it’s no surprise to hear some of the sport’s boldface names preemptively issuing a “See you later, alligator” declaration.

Cuba and golf

lucygolf

There is a 1954 television episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy buys Ricky a set of golf clubs for their anniversary, then regrets it when he and pal Fred Mertz become obsessed with the game.

Until the fawning coverage of New York Mets’ outfielder Yoenis Cespedes’ recent tour of the Palm City, Fla., links during another relentlessly uneventful baseball spring training, that “Lucy” show may have been the last widely disseminated account of a prominent Cuban playing golf.

It is showing one’s age to know that the TV role of Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban singer/bandleader, was played by real Cuban-born singer/bandleader Dezi Arnaz. (Ask you grandmother.) But when it comes to the old club-and-ball sport on that Caribbean island, time has pretty much stood still between the addictions of Ricky and Cespedes.

cespedes

That’s because golf was banned in Cuba after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, who mocked the game and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower’s devotion to it. Castro’s transformation of the island from a playground for rich American capitalists to his Communist template—“Socialism or Death”—included the demise of all but one of the nation’s courses.

A rare photograph unearthed at a 2014 London auction, interpreted as ridiculing Yanqui extravagance, showed Castro and fellow Marxist rebel Che Guevara playing golf in military fatigues and combat boots shortly after the revolution. Sort of a farewell to irons in Cuba.

fidel

Layouts, where golfing greats Sam Snead and Ben Hogan once played, disappeared. Only a small nine-hole course near the Havana airport, built by the British in 1953, was preserved to entertain diplomats and foreign businessmen. Not until the Spaniards constructed a plush resort in the early 1990s on Varadero Beach, two hours from Havana, was a second Cuban course carved out. Also for foreigner duffers only.

So, while sport was declared by the Castro government to be “the right of the people” in Cuba, that didn’t include golf. To a young Yoenis Cespedes, the odds were approximately zero that he would have known the first thing about the game, since he was born in 1985 and raised in Campechuela on Cuba’s opposite coast from those two off-limits-to-Cubans courses.

In 1991, when I was in Cuba to cover the Pan American Games, I interviewed a fellow named Jorge Duque who, at the time, was the country’s only golf pro. His job was to offer lessons to visiting diplomats at the Havana course, then called the Diplo Club. “In Cuba, when you are born, if you are a boy,” Duque said then, “you are playing baseball or soccer or boxing. Those are in our blood. We never think of golf. It’s not part of our life.” Before training for the Diplo assignment, Duque knew only that golf “is that game you play with the bag, and you hit the ball. And that’s all. It’s like the moon. It’s like this”—he formed a circle with his hands—“and it has little holes and it’s up there.”

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Baseball, of course, has been so widely played so well for so long in Cuba that the national team has been winning world, regional and Olympic championships since the 1930s. Fidel Castro himself, pre revolution, was briefly considered a pitching prospect by the old New York Giants. And even the end of U.S.-Cuba relations barely slowed the steady flow of Cuban baseball talent to the States. Since 1959, more than 90 Cubans have defected to play in the Majors. Cespedes is one of 10 to become All-Stars, and one of 27 Cubans on current big-league rosters.

But it wasn’t until shortly after Cespedes escaped the island in 2011 that Cuban officials announced preliminary approval to bring back the bourgeois excess of golf. Foreign developers concluded that Cuba’s almost desperate need for cash had nudged the government to turn to golf resorts in an attempt to lure free-spending tourists (besides Americans, still under the cold-war-era trade embargo, though President Obama has asked Congress to end it). There is a plan for four luxury resort projects and eventually as many as 16.

Things are changing. Next week Obama will become the first U.S. president since 1928 to visit Cuba, and the agenda of incremental improvement in the two nations’ dealings will include Obama’s presence at a baseball exhibition between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuban national team.

Whether the opportunity to play golf (one of Obama’s enthusiasms, it happens) should be conflated with freedom and democracy is debatable. But, in the meantime, there may be no more obvious example of a conspicuous consumption capitalist than the fabulously paid ($75 million for three years) Cespedes, who paraded $1 million worth of personal vehicles into Mets camp and escorted a group of reporters to witness his U.S.-discovered upscale passion for golf. And that is in stark contrast to his homeland, which continues to look like something from a black-and-white “I Love Lucy” set.

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Golf, the Masters and rule of law. Amen.

(NOT the Masters--but there is a par)

(NOT the Masters–but there is a par)

Golf is a fine sport. But the uninitiated should be forewarned this week about much of the media’s worshipful, sappy treatment of the annual Masters tournament. Paeans to golf as “a game of honor and honesty” and the reverential homage to golf’s sacrosanct rules—said to guarantee more fairness than other athletic endeavors—tend to skip over the fact that golf long turned a blind eye to diversity and, at times, to common sense.

Not until 1975 was a black man, Lee Elder, allowed to play the Masters, and only 15 years later did the Masters’ home, the Augusta National, admit a black member. Still another 22 years passed before Augusta accepted women.

Rules, rules. At the 1968 Masters, an overzealous letter-of-the-law decree prevented Argentina’s Roberto De Vicenzo from advancing to a playoff after De Vicenzo’s playing partner, Tommy Aaron, entered a 4 on De Vicenzo’s scorecard—instead of the 3 De Vicenzo earned, fair and square—on the 71st of the tournament’s 72 holes. It was Aaron’s mistake, yet it was De Vicenzo who was held responsible for the error, thereby losing the tournament by one stroke because he signed the inaccurate card.

Such imperfections bring to mind celebrated golf writer Herbert Warren Wind’s famous description, “Amen Corner,” which Wind used to label the Masters’ difficult section at holes 11, 12 and 13. Wind, who died in 2005 at 88, wrote that he lifted the phrase from a 1930s jazz tune, without religious implications.

(USAToday)

(USAToday)

In fact, though, that old recording—“Shouting in the Amen Corner”—directly referred to a church environment. And, just for additional irony, given the Masters’—and golf’s—decades of segregation, the term specifically cited a tradition with Black Protestant congregations, in which church members continually exclaim “amen” during the sermon in response to the pastor’s words.

Furthermore, it could be that lyrics from “Shouting in the Amen Corner” apply to the Masters’ stuffy old exclusionary policies:

Brothers and sisters, we got hypocrites in this crowd

Brothers and sisters, some of you are shoutin’ too loud.

You’ll find out on judgment day, you can’t fool the Lord that way.

Brothers and sisters, hear all I’ve got to say.

And…

You can shout with all your might, but if you ain’t livin’ right

There’s no use shoutin’ in that amen corner….

In 1954, there was a James Baldwin play, “Amen Corner,” with the protagonist’s conclusion that she should not have used religion as an escape from the struggles of life and love. Four years after that production’s brief run, Wind, in his report on the 1958 Masters for Sports Illustrated, first conjured his “Amen Corner” term to dramatize Arnold Palmer’s final-round eagle on No. 13, which secured the first of Palmer’s four Masters’ titles.

My one encounter with the erudite Mr. Wind was during the 1986 U.S. Open at Long Island’s Shinnecock Hills course, when a first round played in a downpour and shifting winds rendered the world’s best golfers helpless to approach the par of 70.

Many of the pros that day declared a more accurate par would have been as high as 77. So I approached Wind, the most experienced golf observer on the premises, with the proposal that par be adjusted, as warranted, in response to conditions beyond just the length of the hole.

Wind regarded my two heads and dismissed the idea out of hand, after he had filled me in on some of the history. That is, that the British invented an imaginary Colonel Bogey, against whom their scores were measured, and Americans later devised par as a more specific, rigid norm. My clearly wacky theory of some par-ometer, that could slide up and down to reflect whether a hole was playing long or short, whether greens were slick or slow, whether a monsoon or hurricane figured in the mix, was in no way acceptable to Wind.

Because the rules are the rules in golf, that most ethical and moral of sports. And, as a skeptical journalist, I qualified as a target of this line in the song….

If your name ain’t on that roll, all that noise won’t save your soul

So stop your shoutin’ in that amen corner.