Monday, August 11, 2014

WHERE HAS ALL THE COLOR GONE? THE HOMOGENIZATION OF THE PGA TOUR




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By Ronald Fox

Although Jordan Spieth, the 20-year old golf phenom, has won only one PGA event, he appears poised to cash in big on endorsement contracts. After Spieth's tie for second at the 2014 Masters, Bob Dorfman, executive director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, pointed to the young star as exactly what golf needs right now and companies will be lining up to sign him. Dorfman believes because Spieth is not flashy, outspoken or controversial, he will appeal to golf’s core audience. Acknowledging Spieth's lack of charisma and uniqueness, Dorfman thinks it’s the Dallas native’s squeaky-clean image that traditionalists can get behind.

Lacking charisma and uniqueness? Not flashy or unique? Squeaky-clean image is just what golf needs?  Is this what professional golf has come to?

I guess I’m not a member of the core audience to which Dorfman is referring. I started following professional golf in the 1950s, and even considered playing it in the 1960s. Back then professional golfers were vastly different in body types, personalities and playing styles. Many considered themselves entertainers as well as golfers. Swings ran the gamut from Doug Sanders’ short slash, to Don January’s regal upright move, to Arnold Palmer’s helicopter finish. I thought player uniqueness lent intrigue and color to the tour. It drew me in.

The old pros carried nicknames that derived from a stylistic or behavioral characteristic. There was “Terrible-Tempered” Tommy Bolt, “Champagne Tony” Tony Lema, “Mr. X” Miller Barber, Gene “The Machine” Littler, “Buffalo Bill” Casper, Kermit “The Man from the Moon” Zarley, and my personal favorite, “Cigar-Chompin’” Charlie Sifford. Some nicknames needed no further explanation. Who didn’t know who the Hawk, Black Night, Squire, King, Golden Bear, Merry Mex, Lord Byron, Slammin’ Sammy, and Chi Chi were? Even derisive nicknames, like Porky Oliver, Gardner “Chicken Hawk” Dickinson, and Lew “The Chin” Worsham were endearing.

Chapagne Tony Lema
"Champagne" Tony Lema
Many of these earlier era golfers were known to have downed a few too many during tournaments, and often brought hangovers to the course. Red faces and noses documented that many golf pros spent more time lifting their arms in bars and lounges than working out in a training room. Physical specimens they were not. Gambling was a critical component of their income, and some great golfers, like Al “Bessie” Besselink, Moe Norman and Titanic Thompson, avoided PGA events because notoriety could harm their ability to scam golf pigeons. Many players grew up hard-scrabble, far from the country club.

With home-grown swings and varied life stories, golfers of the past brought to the tour a diverse and fascinating array of backgrounds, personalities, lifestyles and golfing idiosyncrasies. Who can forget Arnie, with his ever-present cigarette, hitching his pants, or Chi Chi doing his sword dance and whipping off his hot putter shaft with his handkerchief?  I loved hearing the chattering Trevino tell the crowd about his next shot, while standing over it.  They guys were good, but also entertaining.

In contrast to today’s golf stars, the big names of the past had generally good relations with the press and often hung out with the scribes. Tony Lema served champagne to the press after tourney wins. Jimmy “The Wardrobe” Demaret, who had his clothes specially made, would regale press folk with his rich baritone voice in the clubhouse bar, often until it closed. Most journalists subscribed to the view that what was said in the bar, stayed in the bar. This earned player trust and thus more openness and honesty in conversations. As a result, player interviews were usually frank and revealing, unhindered by concerns about image and worries about political correctness, peer disapproval, sponsor rejection, or journalist betrayal.

Nowadays most pro golfers keep media sorts at arm’s length. They will talk to journalists, but generally they stay close to the vest, offering only predictable bromidic statements that won’t raise controversy or reveal anything personal. (Is there anything worse than a Tiger Woods interview?). There are, of course, a few exceptions. John Daly’s act has grown tired, but in his prime the eminently quotable Daly was loved by the media. I remember years ago being with media folk in the Tap Room at Pebble Beach when Daly gave the bartender his credit card and announced that all drinks for the dozens of people in the room were on him. We closed the joint.  All this has changed.

Today’s golf pros, at least those from America, are overwhelmingly likely to have matriculated in country club
Al "Bessie" Besselink
Al "Bessie" Besselink
settings with personal trainers, swings instructors, agents, and endless formal competitive opportunities. Most of them played on highly regimented college golf teams, which reinforced behavioral conformity.  As a result they tend to look alike, dress alike, swing pretty much alike, conduct themselves similarly on the course, and, most aggravating, answer media questions in the same monotonous, careful, impersonal way. This, however, is not entirely their fault given the inane questions golf announcers usually ask: how do you feel about winning? Shockingly, winners usually feel good about winning. Heavy! What is most grating is when a player near the top of the leader board is asked to go over his round and responds by recounting nearly every hole, after we’ve watched most of the shots on TV.

Some current pros try to be different, like Rickie Fowler with his trendy bright colors and flat-brimmed hats, but they learn not to cross the line of what is acceptable to the golf establishment. Fowler himself learned this lesson when he was admonished for coming to his first Augusta interview with his hat turned back—the nerve of that young man! Others come to the tour with unique swing mannerisms, which, if they slow play, are certain to draw ridicule from golf announcers and officials. I had no problem with Sergio Garcia’s waggles, Kevin Na’s reluctance to pull the trigger, or Andrew Loupe’s multiple practice swings, but the golf aficionados sure did.   Expect to see Loupe follow the paths of Garcia and Na and stifle his unique habit.

I’m sorry, but I guess I’m old golf school. I was attracted to the quirkiness, frankness, humor, occasional indiscretions, and raw displays of emotions of yesterday’s golf professionals. Who was more colorful and entertaining than Terrible-Tempered Tommy Bolt? If a golfer today were to toss a club, it would become national news and probably bring a suspension. Bolt once threw his whole bag in a lake.

A sampling of his famous utterances captures the essence of “Thunder Bolt” as well as the entertaining era in which he played. Bolt once told budding star, Arnold Palmer: “Always throw clubs ahead of you. That way you won’t waste any energy going back to pick them up.”  He was later to admit: “It thrills crowds to see a guy suffer. That’s why I threw clubs

Tommy "Thunder" Bolt
Tommy "Thunder" Bolt
so often. They love to see golf get the better of someone … At first I threw clubs because I was angry. After a while it became showmanship, plain and simple. I learned that if you helicopter those dudes by throwing them sideways instead of overhand, the shaft wouldn’t break as easy. It’s an art, it really is.” I adored Tommy Bolt; rest his soul.

Showing emotion on the course nowadays? Billy Horschel quickly found out this was not something to do in front of the ever watchful camera and judgmental golf announcers. So did Pat Perez. Being irreverent? Not acceptable, as Patrick Reed found when he had the audacity to declare himself one of the top five golfers in the world. Earlier even Tiger Woods was lambasted when he said he had won without his “A game.” I find such brashness honest and refreshing, far better than the expected: “I feel very fortunate to have won again. All I can do is keep working to get better.” Snooze!

Advertiser Dorfman says golf’s core audience wants respectful golfers with squeaky-clean images. This isn’t surprising. Most golf consumers—those who play, watch, attend and buy golf products–are white, middle class males partial to conservative politics. They want their golf stars to share their conservative values. Players are expected to show patriotism, which nowadays is often demonstrated by displaying the stars and stripes, shaking hands with soldiers in uniform, and joining in the chanting of USA, USA! Such “patriotism” is more symbolic than substantive, but it appears to satisfy the core golf audience. The few players that stray from the conservative line are likely to hear about it, from fans as well as purveyors of product endorsement contracts.

Pro golfers need little prodding to embrace conservatism. Given the wealth and privilege backgrounds of many today’s tour players, and the fortunes they make through tournament purses, equipment sponsors, and product endorsement contracts, it is not surprising that most professional golfers subscribe to conservative politics. This also helps explain why golfers today might be inclined to avoid being outspoken, controversial or irreverent, since such behavior might endanger financial opportunities beyond the course. Phil’s comment that he might leave California in order to lessen his tax burden underscores the conservative impulse among the tour elite. While many political liberals took issue with such a complaint coming from a multimillionaire, and some in the media expressed shock at Phil’s political incorrectness, I didn’t hear of any complaints from tour regulars. I can’t imagine anti-tax conservatives were too bothered either.

Jack and Arnie
Jack and Arnie
I mean no offense to Jordan Spieth. He's a superior player, potentially a dominant one, and he appears a genuinely nice, respectful, gentleman who does and says “the right things.” This is what the golfing establishment seems to want all golfers to be like. If this trend continues, pro golfers will become indistinguishable except for the quality of their games. This might make the golf establishment happy, but is it a good thing for the tour? Will talent alone sustain enthusiastic fan support?

I don’t believe so. The dedication of most players today to strength and fitness, healthy diets, swing coaches, and endless practicing is producing a parity of talent unseen in previous golf eras. The proliferation of young first-time winners in recent years, and their growing success in the majors, underscores the emerging parity. The Tour needs more than talented players; it needs a few eccentric characters; unique personalities with some pizzazz.  

Jordan Spieth may become the new Phil, as the golf establishment is hoping, but for this to happen he needs to fire up his personality. His obvious talent needs to be coupled with personality traits that remind fans he is a human being and not Iron Mike. A little charisma would help. Arnold, Jack and Lee had it, and so did Tiger, and to a lesser extent, Phil. I’d love to see an unconventional, even wacky, superstar emerge as the tour standard bearer, but it’s doubtful the golf establishment will allow this to happen, not as long as the Spieth personality is the new normal.  I wonder what will happen to the PGA Tour when Tiger and Phil are gone from the scene. The Senior Tour suffered a big decline, from which it has yet to recover, when Palmer, Nicklaus and Trevino departed.

Could this happen to the regular tour? I suspect it could if tour officials, advertisers, and announcers have their way purging player idiosyncrasies and eccentricities and homogenizing their personalities to fit their traditionalist notions. I don't think I'm alone in wanting more colorful players to inhabit the Tour. Unfortunately such a development is not likely to happen given professional golf's conformity-producing matriculation system.







































2 comments:

  1. Great blog! I had no idea about some of these old personalities. It does seem that a lot of the current players are like golfing robots. I see this in other sports as well, where technique has been refined and everyone needs to be in great shape to compete. That's fine, but that doesn't mean it has to come with milquetoast personalities.

    I do think that it could hurt the game in the long run. As you point out, some fans will love the skill and that will be enough, but casual fans might eventually be turned off.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great blog! I had no idea about some of these old personalities. It does seem that a lot of the current players are like golfing robots. I see this in other sports as well, where technique has been refined and everyone needs to be in great shape to compete. That's fine, but that doesn't mean it has to come with milquetoast personalities.

    I do think that it could hurt the game in the long run. As you point out, some fans will love the skill and that will be enough, but casual fans might eventually be turned off.

    ReplyDelete

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