The pro golf tours are the industry’s billboard. What they do and how they present the game have tremendous trickle-down effects. What happens on the PGA Tour - and, arguably, to a modified degree on the LPGA and European Tour - helps shape what happens at facilities at every level, from elite private clubs to mom-and-pop daily fees and the country’s municipal tracts.
It’s all about learning from role models. Given the attention the public focuses on the achievements of the game’s premier golfers, it’s reasonable to expect that the public acquires habits based on what it sees on TV, tracks through social media, hears on podcasts and reads in books and magazines.
Not everyone has to follow Tuesday press conferences on cable TV in order to qualify as “tour-influenced.” There are varying degrees of engagement, with a core group of loyalists and an outer circle of more casual followers who track on special occasions. Like the final round of a Masters. Or whenever Tiger Woods plays – which we know is assured to double web traffic for the week.
The tours have great assets to work with. The gap between PGA Tour performance and the play of an average golfer has never been wider. The talents of a Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy show off incredibly well on TV and highlight the combination of hard work, physical talent and the technical mastery of playing equipment and training gear like launch monitors that are part of elite golf. But along with dazzling performance imagery – and the promise of game improvement for everyday players – are other images that cast a pall on the game.
When the public sees players dawdling forever before making a swing, it inculcates terrible habits that ramify throughout the industry. Likewise for players who vandalize bunkers and greens. This sets a terrible tone, as if it’s okay to desecrate the playing field. And when players violate the rules or flaunt their benefits from the outcome, it cultivates a notion that the rules do not matter and that what counts – as in too many team sports today – is simply “getting away with” a rules transgression.
If these issues didn’t matter, Twitter traffic of late on my golf feed would have been very different. But the fact is that a sector of the public is watching closely. And when that happens, the stewards of the golf industry have to be extra careful in how they guard the game.
These tours need to do a much better job in presenting a constructive image of the brand. It’s not enough to celebrate athleticism and competitive fire. And all of the glossy PSAs and self-serving social media posts of the players won’t compensate for the bad behavior that we are seeing all too often at the highest levels.
Lately, it has become obvious that the tours lag in terms presenting an image of the game that is affirming. A month ago at the European Tour’s Saudi International, Sergio Garcia deliberately pummeled a bunker and five greens during the week in frustration. For that, he received nothing more than a quiet private rebuke. He should have been suspended.
At the World Golf Championship event in Mexico this past week, we saw some inappropriate behavior by Bryson DeChambeau. It came twice, actually: first when he was seen intentionally damaging a practice green, then later when he participated in an impish video with Bubba Watson that made fun of the whole thing by DeChambeau demonstrating how to “test” greens firmness” by beating down on the surface with a putter (DeChambeau later apologized for the damage). All of this a week after the Genesis Open, where DeChambeau was seen eviscerating a bunker edge at Riviera.
The video above with Watson was obviously a joke, but pranks like that are not funny when they follow up on inappropriate behavior. In an era when too few golfers replace divots and rake bunkers, the last thing we need is a PGA Tour star making fun of the playing field. It only creates headaches for superintendents. Someone should have taken DeChambeau to the proverbial woodshed for his behavior.
This past week, we saw an example on the LPGA of something that has quietly plagued the men’s tours as well: backstopping. It's been much discussed, and involves one player deciding not to mark his/her ball when another player about to hit up from around the green might benefit from using that first ball as a backstop.
At the Honda LPGA Thailand this past week, Ariya Jutanugarn was about to mark her ball that lay behind the hole but was waved off by Amy Olson, who ended up hitting her greenside recovery against Jutanugarn’s ball, thereby benefiting from the unmarked ball. It was an eye-opener of an incident, and while express intent to cheat might not have been at issue, it was enough a of rules violation to warrant more than what the LPGA decided to do, which was to absolve both players of wrongdoing.
In this case, and in others of backstopping, the real issue is not intent but effect. When players act in a way that does not protect the integrity of the entire field, the tours need to step in and impose sanctions.