Friday, April 09, 2010

Role Models Don't Golf

cross-posted at Dagblog

The public shaming of Tiger Woods is apparently never going to end. Too many people are drunk on the feeling of moral authority they get by scolding him. The chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club decided to dress Woods down during the chairman's annual speech, complaining that the golfer “disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids.” Meanwhile, a columnist from the Washington Post is arguing that Woods "doesn't deserve to win" the Masters, apparently because the columnist feels more penance is in order. How much more? Stupid question. It will never end. If Woods doesn't win, they'll say he needs to "give the fans" a championship. If Woods does win, they'll say it was "too soon."

None of these people have anything to say. It was all said months ago: adultery is wrong. There's really nothing else to add, except for the unholy joy of piling on. The fact that the rest of us are uninvited third parties, butting in on someone else's marriage, only makes the fun easy; the scolds have no skin in the game. The fact that Woods repeatedly grovels and apologizes for the cameras doesn't keep people from unloading on him. Quite the reverse: this is now about bullying, plain and simple, and Woods's public repentance just signals to the bullies that he won't or can't fight back. The Post columnist, Thomas Boswell, notes that Woods "still has to eat crow 24/7 in front of every microphone," and shoves one more feathery helping down the man's throat. The golf club chairman, Billy Payne, made his scolding speech in a public forum that allowed Woods, who is after all the club's guest, no chance to reply. And that's the satisfying part: that Woods just has to take it, and keep taking it.

The gratuitous and increasingly disproportionate scolding has actually started to reveal the scolders' own poor character. But the sudden elevation of the pro golf establishment to oracular moral authority made me wonder how on Earth anyone could associate golfing with moral authority. What is moral about golf? What is right or good or just about golf? If we're being all judgmental, how should we judge pro golf itself?

Golf is an expensive, elitist and exclusionary pastime. It hogs large swaths of prime real estate for the exclusive use of well-heeled hobbyists who have both the money to waste on expensive clubs, fees, and paraphernalia and the enormous stretches of leisure time to waste playing nine (or even eighteen) pointless holes. As a sport, it takes up the maximum time possible for the minimum cardiovascular benefit; you'd be better off just walking the course. Unlike basketball, football, soccer, boxing, or baseball, unlike wrestling or track and field, it has never been any athlete's route out of poverty. It is too prohibitively expensive for a poor young player to take up, and golf scholarships are for people whose parents bought them golf lessons (and clubs and cleats and endless practice balls and, and, and ...) Golf doesn't get anyone out of the projects; it takes people from Grosse Pointe and keeps them there. It might help some people up the career ladder after they've already gotten adult middle-class jobs, but that's not really a social justice project. Golf doesn't even teach basic athletic virtues like teamwork and unselfishness; even team golf is basically an individual endeavor done in tandem with someone else. You never pass to give someone else the glory, you never sacrifice yourself with a bunt, you never protect a teammate by blocking a hit with your body.

Golf is best understood as an elaborate excuse for spending as much money as possible; it is competitive self-indulgence. Players focus on more and more expensive clubs, more and more expensive and exclusive courses, more and more time spent "working on their games," rather than, say, working. Top hobbyists, like the Fortune 500 types who make up Augusta National, can spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on the game. That is in fact the game's chief purpose. And even charity tournaments, I'm told by a friend who does non-profit development, tend to be money-losers for the charity, because providing the golf itself is so expensive. Really, you only hold the golf fund-raiser to keep your donors happy: in short, to indulge them.

Is golf a terrible thing? Is it wrong? No. It's a fairly harmless pastime, and people looking to consume conspicuously can always find much worse ways to do it. It would be a pretty great world if golf represented one of the major injustices. But neither is it a good thing, really. It is not something that makes the world a better place, nor was it meant to. It is primarily a vehicle for expensive self-gratification.

Tiger Woods plays this magnificent self-indulgence magnificently. For that, and for endorsing a wide range of gratifyingly expensive luxury goods, he has been made rich in a way that cuts him off from the basic condition of most of humanity. And then, made fabulously wealthy for excelling at a self-indulgence, Tiger turns out to be "a selfish 30-something adolescent" in the Thomas Boswell's words: immature, self-centered and self-indulgent, enormously entitled and focused on gratifying himself. Yes, yes, it's all true. Tiger Woods is those sorry things. But where's the surprise? Those are the things big-time golf is about, baby.

No comments: