Poor tour golf behavior affects industry brand

Recent episodes of slow play, backstopping and temper tantrums on PGA, LPGA tours set worrisome trend
Bryson DeChambeau's recent damaging of a practice green at Club de Golf Chapultepec, as well as a bunker at Riviera, are among several optics problems the pro tours face at the moment.

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.

Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Follow Brad on Twitter
63 Comments
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Golf is a game of integrity. What on earth is happening lately? This recent LPGA incident, plus Sergio’s sand fit, Byson’s beating the greens, and JB’s incredibly slow play hurt the entire industry. Where are the leaders?

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It is amazing to me the the current group of players make Jack Nicklaus of 60'S and 70's look like a speed demon. I can recall being at US Opens, Masters, PGAs, thinking to myself "just hit the putt!. Tee to green you noticed it less because he seemed to prepare himself while waiting for the other players to ready themselves. It did seem like like we were always waiting on Jack but it was because of his length advantage. It is ridiculous that it takes 2 pros to exceed 3.5 hours to play. They rarely have to look for balls, they have incredibly well
prepared caddies, and they are for the most parts hitting it 72 times or less. Put in a enforced 1 minute rule to start when it is their time to play with a 2 stroke penalty after the 3 violation..

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I agree, there needs to be more sever punishment for out of control behavior. If you damage the golf course maybe suspended and fined.
As for back stopping, I have to wonder if you are pitching to a hole that's twice as large as the golf ball, the odds of hitting the hole vs the ball ?

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There have always been hotheads in sport. Slow play is simply aggravating.

What seems to be missing are the steadying influences. Would Palmer, Nicklaus or Player have allowed the younger players to continue in this vein? I’m disturbed with damage to the golf course but horrified by the extended middle finger provided by the Watson video.

Spoiled brats with no concept of decorum should be spanked not reprimanded. Stop pounding on your high chairs boys and grow up!

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I ranger every year here in Council Bluffs, Iowa and when a player is caught deliberately destroying the course we let them know they are done, they are not the owner and the $25.00 rent they paid doesn't allow them to tear up the course. We realize that it wasn't their abilities that caused the missed putt, probably the greens condition, but they are not a "PRO" so they must leave"NO REFUND"!! Not only do the pros have access to courses we can only dream of and no greens fees they can wear anything they want. Try taking 6 hours to play at our course and you will be skipping plenty of holes. SUGGESTION, Mr. pro next time you miss a putt or hit a bad shot take a look at your bank statement if that doesn't help try using your college degree to get a real job .

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Hello: Speaking of slow play, Dustin and Rory on Sunday burned well over 10 minutes in Mexico with their appeals that their stances were obstructed by the cart path. To Rory's further dis-credit, he was not being quite fair about the situation on his potential forehand shot. From his stance with one foot on the path, you could see on TV that he was not able to put his club on the ball. The larger issue: what a waste of time. (BTW: why is the Rules Official not close by, especially re the leading group. More wasted time. Was he having his coffee break?) Bottom line: where the nature of the golfer's foot on the path, or other impediment, is not "important" to the situation (i.e. is not going to have a genuinely negative effect) then this old rule should be dis-allowed. Dustin would not have received a freebie under this proposal. No free drop, no time wasted. A simple change in favour of speed of play.

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Damage and all the frustration aside, it's the slow play that really trickles down to us average players on a daily and weekly basis. Now most hackers think it's okay to emulate the professional golfers, with the following thought process. "If they can do it, then so can I". I thought the USGA & R&A, were in agreement on the 40 second shot rule, and would enforce it with stroke penalties, which we all now know isn't happening. What dumbfounds me along with the aforementioned, is the time the pros take once they reach the green. I have timed some players at 2 to 3 minutes, or longer before actually making the putting stroke. Everyone complains about how slow the game is becoming, but little action being applied to speed up the pace of play.

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Make the game more difficult for them. Do do something about the balls to reduce distance. Make the greens more difficult. Penalties only in the form of strokes plus money. One stroke can make the difference. Play the ball where it lies. Free drops only in GUR situations. Male the rules more simple. Half of them is rubbish.

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The solution is to suspend these brats for 4-5 events for each physical infraction, including cursing (it’s picked up in the sound feed and broadcasts into our homes). It’s sad to see the game being ruined by lack of ethics. Their habits are mimicked by the public. Let’s protect our last remaining sport of gentlepersons. Even the commentators cross the line with off color comments.

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Hmm. I don’t know how Amy Olson and Ariya can be added to this discussion. Bryson and Sergio were rich punks acting like 10 year olds. I was a fan of Bryson still he did this. Sergio blames it on his competive nature, but it’s underperforming and choking that he is known for. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like to lose. But when you are influencing the younger generation playing the game with reruns of all of this negative behavior, the PGA is the enabler. Shame on them.

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Poor tour golf behavior affects industry brand