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What Does “Good for the Game” Even Mean?

NLU Feature piece by contributor Tim Collarmore:

Sports journalism is chock full of cliché hot takes and retread narrative crafting. One such cliché involves arguing whether “player x” or “coach y” is good or bad for the sport in question. Usually, this narrative is saved for an individual that fits one (or more) of a particular set of criteria: young, dominant, eccentric, or unconventional. Golf, a sport in which as of a few years ago wearing bright orange was relatively as noteworthy as dressing like Dennis Rodman, is particularly guilty of reinforcing the “good or bad for the game” narrative amongst its think-tank of journalists. To be fair, it’s really hard to come up with original insights or narratives in the age of instant data and over-analysis.

It’s especially true in golf, a sport in which the establishment is perceived as being the Stuffy Old Guys Illuminati and the game itself is misunderstood. Golf journalism is tiredly aimed at the stereotypical  “traditional golf fan” who reads Golf Digest to pick up new swing tips with zero functional utility, get aroused by images of new equipment and by the always embarrassingly misogynistic “hottest women in golf” issue, and peruse the same old boring puff pieces. Put more plainly, golf lends itself to low-hanging-fruit analysis and commentary due to the size and makeup of its perceived target audience. I say “perceived” because I don’t think this is reality.

At the same time, the majority of our society feels the same way about watching golf as it does about going to the symphony. There’s a distant appreciation of the skill required to control the little white ball, but there’s still a consensus that it’s far too boring to be interesting. In turn, golf fans tend to overcompensate by feeling the need to justify their fandom of the game. Trying to convince your college-age friends that watching the PGA Tour on Sundays is a worthwhile endeavor is basically like trying to convince vegans that a ribeye is better than a filet. They’ve already made up their mind and will never experience what you’re describing, so what’s the point?

As weird as I feel when I become evangelical about my golf fandom, I can’t help it. Golf produces more organic drama than any other sport in the world! Its players are more accessible, visible, and relatable to an average person than any other professional sport! And it’s a game that constitutes an absolute meritocracy, free of nepotism, politics, free agency, and all of the disgusting aspects of every other pro sport. Aside from sponsorships, there are no contracts and there is no grey area; a golfer earns what he objectively deserves. What’s not to love?

So when an exciting new golfer with remotely unique characteristics comes along, every journalist understandably pounces on the opportunity to whip out a quill and make a keen observation. One of the most typical observations is whether this new golfer will be good or bad for the sport. Rickie Fowler, who burst on the scene with long hair, flat-brimmed hats, and bright colors, is an obvious case study of such narrative crafting. Even years after his emergence we’re still subjected to the same themes. Case in-point.

You can basically boil the common themes down to “this guy is young and flashy and has some game and will be good for golf because he will attract a new viewership.” First of all, it’s pointless to try to assess whether a golfer will be good or bad for the game. It’s a lazy narrative based on obvious assumptions that are neither here nor there. What does it even mean to be “good” for golf?

That’s logical fallacy number two. If Rickie Fowler is able to increase the breadth of golf’s viewership by drawing in people who otherwise wouldn’t have watched golf, who is it benefiting? Perhaps it’s the players on tour. The players are arguably who benefited the most from the Tiger era as purses ballooned exponentially in the matter of a decade. Maybe that’s still the case, although there’s no guarantee that increases in ticket sales or TV revenue would increase purse sizes.

In all likelihood, it would be the PGA Tour itself and corporate America (ie, Puma or Under Armour) who benefit and stuff their pockets with cash. But for the rest of us humble viewers? I could probably argue the opposite; that currently the PGA Tour is one of the last bastions of being relatively free of the irritating hype surrounding the NFL or NBA (as much as I love both of them). An even more disastrous consequence of expanded viewership is if more people actually go out and play the game, making my slog around the local muni take even longer because some guy wearing jeans in the group ahead of me is taking 2 minutes to read and 8 footer.

The third logical fallacy surrounding this argument is assuming that just because Rickie’s emergence is coupled with more and more people wearing orange in the gallery, the game is reaching a new audience. It’s quite possible that the only people who care about Rickie Fowler are already golf fans. I have zero data to back this claim up other than to question whether Fowler, Spieth, Day, and McIlroy are resonating strongly with anyone who isn’t already a golf fan. My anecdotal experience says that if this is happening, it’s most likely Speith who is drawing people in, but I’m still dubious that this is happening at all.

This brings us to Bryson DeChambeau. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s the most interesting player to hit the PGA landscape in the last few decades. He is the perfect storm of talent, youth, polish, style, quirkiness, intelligence, cockiness, and exuberance. He’s an amalgamation of Phil’s swagger, Furyk’s homemade technical individuality, Boo Weekley’s outspokenness, Bubba’s emotional volatility, and Spieth’s appreciation for golf history. If his career were to fizzle after one impressive professional start, he would still be noteworthy for being golf’s equivalent of the Dos Equis guy.

Cats like Bryson DeChambeau don’t find their way to the tour very often. As such, he will be extremely polarizing. There will be those who can’t stand his swagger. There will be those who don’t understand him and scoff at not being able to put him in a box. When he misses his first cut, the doubters and haters will write about how much this young man has to learn and how much better he might be if he carried himself like Tom Watson, Tom Lehman, Tom Kite, or any of the other guys named Tom who played on the tour and were conventional gentlemen. When he gets his first win, the supporters will start talking about him winning more majors than Jack and possibly curing cancer in his free time. The gallery will start filling up with people wearing “cabbie” hats and you’ll undoubtedly have a co-worker who won’t shut up about how he’s ordering clubs of all the same length.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with these narratives. Sports are meant to be fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s encouraging that recent years have seen the emergence of writers who bring fresh insight, analysis, and, most importantly, a sense of humor to golf journalism. A good journalist can heighten the joy of watching the game. It’s a breath of fresh air from the tired narrative crafting that has effectively superseded and detracted from the fantastic drama taking place on the course. Never has there been more top-to-bottom talent on the PGA Tour. Never has the coverage been better (except when it’s on CBS). Never have we needed artificial storylines less.  It’s human to label things in order to understand what we see with our eyes. We have to talk about Sergio being a choke artist because there’s no other way we can wrap our head around why he hasn’t won more tournaments and is winless in majors.

There’s fun in finding the stories, but let’s also remember that every Sunday there’s drama and amazing golf to witness regardless of who ends up winning the tournament or how it happened.  I know I sound like the “leave Britney alone” girl right now, and believe me when I say I’m crying to myself as I write this, so I’ll step down from my soapbox now.  Let’s all enjoy ourselves out there.

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  • So “good for golf” = good for viewership? I never understood the reason to care so much about others’ opinions (non-golfers).

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