A few weeks ago, Rory McIlroy played a round of golf with the president of the United States. Based on the chummy photos, it looked like a fun day at the Trump International in Florida. It didn’t go over well.
McIlroy has spent his career balancing the tricky sectarian politics of his native Northern Ireland. He’s managed it with remarkable craft, going so far as to skip the Olympics rather than pick a side. But briefly entering Donald Trump’s cone of stupidity seemed to unmoor him.
Predictably, some people got quite exercised about any sort of famous person seeming to endorse America’s golfer-in-chief. They called McIlroy a fascist and a bigot, which does seem a bit much.
Then McIlroy made it worse. Rather than shrug off the criticism, the Irishman waded in with a tin-eared rejoinder that managed to make a multimillionaire professional athlete seem even more disconnected from reality than usual.
“I’ve travelled all over the world and have been fortunate enough to befriend people from many different countries, beliefs and cultures,” McIlroy said, in part, in a statement.
Somehow, golf does not seem the best avenue through which to explore the variety of human experience, in that it tends to happen exclusively in gated parks denuded of regular humans.
“Rory, are you familiar with the native peoples of Papua New Guinea?”
“Familiar with them? I’ll have you know I’ve golfed with them.”
I rather think not.
What McIlroy ended up highlighting is golf’s increasing remoteness from the rest of us. This impression was not helped by a vaguely scientific New York Times poll in which 89.3 per cent of PGA Tour pros said they would golf with Trump. It’s more proof that while people will tell you they vote their conscience, they actually vote their tax bracket.
In the Trump era, most high-profile athletes have been careful to distance themselves from the demagogue on top. They understand instinctively that while they are not normal people, it is in their financial self-interest to appear as if they are.
Not today’s golfers. They’re busily undoing many years’ worth of marketing outreach.
Over a generation, beginning in the 1990s, golf morphed from the sport of plutocrats and salarymen into something close to a working-class pastime.
The remarkable synergy between Tiger Woods and Nike did that. For the first time, golf was wedged into advertising montages between pickup basketball and sandlot baseball. They contrived to make the sport cool, and almost gritty.
In my teens, I would sooner have played polo than golf. It seemed that foreign to me. Had one of my friends said, “I golfed yesterday,” it would have shaken me more than if he’d said, “I killed a hitchhiker on vacation.”
But by my twenties, I was hacking around on public courses with a half-set of clubs I’d picked up for a hundred bucks at Canadian Tire. Like everyone else I knew, I was terrible at it. My only tactical breakthrough involved an advanced geometric system whereby I could wedge nearly a dozen beers into the ball pocket of my bag.
But when golf had its moment in the Bill Clinton era, nobody expected you to be any good. In fact, in my circle, it was frowned upon. What you were expected to do was show up on a Saturday morning, drink heavily, play miserably and quit whenever you started to get tired or pulled a muscle. Either/or.
A lot of people out there looked just like you – clueless. Yet you’d have to book those slots weeks ahead. For a sport of kings, it was a brief, heady interlude amongst the peasants.
This was much more than explaining the small joys of a new hobby. It was escorting people across a profound class divide.
The Woods/Nike sales machine made golf a thing not only for people who’d never played, but also for those who thought of it as antithetical to their place in the great order. Until Woods showed up, there were two types of people in the world – those who worked for a living and those who golfed. Woods embodied both types. He gave golf the gift of seeming meritocratic.
The effect allowed the sport’s socioeconomic chasm to shrink to the point where just about anyone could step across it.
It’s widening again. Fast.
This isn’t a function of participation or the price of equipment. It’s a matter of perception.
Golf no longer seems cool and accessible. In fact, golf is starting to look seriously uncool. That was a problem five years ago when Woods began his slow fade into nothingness. Thanks to Trump, it’s becoming a crisis.
There is a long list of things the new President doesn’t like – trade deals, health-care, foreigners, birth control, handshakes, protest, facts, the media, anywhere south of 42nd Street, legislative legwork, conciliation and the natural balding process.
There appears to be just one thing he does enjoy – golf.
While he runs the most powerful nation on Earth, Trump has managed to find an enormous amount of time for his real vocation. In 10 weeks on the job, he’s golfed 14 times. There are guys on the senior tour who practise less.
All modern U.S. presidents have been careful to include golf in their image cultivation. It has the benefit of seeming virile and active, while reducing the chances of sporting embarrassment, since just about everyone is awful at it. A president can be seen hooking one into the rough. He cannot be seen taking a knee in the crotch during three-on-three basketball.
Trump’s problem is that until recently, he was down on presidents as golfers. During the election campaign, he used the sport as a cudgel with which to beat Barack Obama.
“I love golf, but if I were in the White House, I don’t think I’d ever see (Trump-owned course) Turnberry again. I don’t think I’d ever see Doral again. I own Doral in Miami,” he gibbered at a rally. “I just want to stay in the White House and work my ass off, make great deals. Right? Who’s going to leave? Who’s going to leave?”
Well, him. More than anyone in history.
By Trump’s own estimation, golfing is shorthand for shiftless laziness. And yet.
Now the first real go at golf during the Trump years is upon us.
The PGA Tour never really stops, but it only truly starts each year in April in Augusta. What Wimbledon is to the first long days of summer, the Masters is to the beginning of spring.
While golf can seem money-grubbing and elitist, Augusta National has been able to maintain a sense of aristocratic remove from that rule. They don’t gouge (a beer still costs what it did 30 years ago). They don’t pander (everyone has to turn their ball-cap the right way round). They don’t parade out their membership list (which includes another work-shy member of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) like some needy debutante in search of social affirmation.
With occasional missteps, that elegant hauteur has insulated the Masters from the sport’s general decline. It alone seems above the fray.
Piggybacking on Woods’ allure, the Masters had its best years. Now it gets difficult.
Woods won’t be in the field, and may never compete there again as a genuine force. His generational and philosophic bookend, Arnold Palmer, is gone. Along with a great deal of fan interest, they’ve taken the impression that golf is a people’s game along with them. There will be players who have their talent, but they have, as yet, no true heirs.
The PGA Tour is populated by a bunch of guys willing to stake their claim in the American culture wars by teeing up with Trump. Alone amongst pro athletes, they’ve picked the other side.
Through one half of the country’s political lens, this year’s Masters will no longer seem like good fun. It’s going to feel slightly insidious: These are the people we’re fighting against. All those panoramic overhead shots of mittel-American one-per-centers in their weekend uniform – ball-caps, branded polos and Brooks Brothers shorts – will make the crowd look less like an audience and more like a rally. It’s the establishment wing of the Republican party on parade.
Of course, that’s not new. You can’t get tickets to the Masters unless you are moneyed, well connected and able to come a long way during the workweek. That sort of person tends to vote one way. When you stand amongst the Masters throng, you feel the tribal comfort of people who know they are surrounded by their own kind. It’s unlike any other event in that way. It’s a profound separator.
Trump’s greatest accomplishment thus far has been mapping precisely all the hidden cracks in American society. If you follow the voting map, you can now see the hard lines where certain ideas die once they cross over.
Another part of this will become clear in Augusta this week, revealed through the medium of sport. That there are two types of Americans – those who golf and those who don’t. All of a sudden, that seems to matter again.Report Typo/Error
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