Monday 26 September 2016

Touch of groupthink in golf's seven-star cocoon

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

'As they dropped out with a certain inevitability, you could get the impression that they were driven less by anxiety about the Zika virus, than the anxiety about their status in that seven-star cocoon - that when Rory made his statement, the rest felt obliged to follow him lest they be regarded as anything other than top players, these one-man corporations who are constantly measuring the size of their vital attributes against those of their nearest competitors.' REUTERS/Craig Brough
'As they dropped out with a certain inevitability, you could get the impression that they were driven less by anxiety about the Zika virus, than the anxiety about their status in that seven-star cocoon - that when Rory made his statement, the rest felt obliged to follow him lest they be regarded as anything other than top players, these one-man corporations who are constantly measuring the size of their vital attributes against those of their nearest competitors.' REUTERS/Craig Brough

There is a strange and terrible ritual which takes place every week on American television, whereby the chief executive of the corporation which is sponsoring the week's golf tournament on the PGA Tour is invited into the commentary box to accept the gratitude of the broadcasters, and also to describe the charitable projects which are being funded by the event.

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Usually they've been sponsoring the tournament for many years, so they will mention the overall amount which has been raised since the sponsorship started, and this can seem like quite a large number, maybe a ballpark 20 million for some local good cause, such as a children's hospital.

At which point the commentator, though duly deferential and sporting the blazer of his own corporation, will put forward the argument that the sponsor is merely trying to deal with the symptoms of capitalism rather than capitalism itself, that misplaced caring within this broken system is as wrong as no caring at all, that charity can be used as a mask for less worthy motivations, such as the encouragement of the ideological position that an essential social service such as healthcare is something that works better when it is in the gift of the wealthy, rather than available to the citizen as a fundamental human right.

Well no, actually, the commentator does not say that. Not a word is spoken to disturb the tranquillity of this executive paradise, the etiquette of this meeting of the game of golf with the game of money.

So deep are the associations, so astronomical are the numbers involved, you could say that high class professional golf is no longer just engaged in a rewarding relationship with big money, they are at times indistinguishable - golf is money.

Happy together in that seven-star cocoon, you can understand why there would be an instinctive aversion to leaving it, even for the prospect of an Olympic medal, if it involves dragging yourself down to some dubious track in South America without the usual platinum-coated guarantees.

When you're moving in a culture of executive-jet entitlement, when you are separated from the ordinary man at every turn, it doesn't seem natural to be mixing with various weightlifters from Zimbabwe and triple-jumpers from the Philippines in an unsettling environment.

You don't know what you'd catch, as they say, though in this case conveniently enough you do - the Zika virus.

It has been suggested that the most likely victims of the virus are extremely poor women living in the slums of Brazil, which is probably the demographic furthest away on planet Earth from the one containing multi-millionaire golfers, but then Brexit and the rise of the golfer Trump have shown us that we are now in a "post-fact" world, in which "feelings", even if they are wildly misinformed and actually completely ridiculous, are the only stuff that matters.

Yet while the golfers were reflecting the values of the VIP enclosures in general, placing themselves high above the multitudes, I felt that Rory McIlroy was taking too much of the heat here.

He may have been the first of the really top guys to declare that this low-rent jamboree was not for him, but in his statements last week at the Open at Royal Troon, you could sense that McIlroy is not completely at one with the world of corporate bullshit, that there is in him still a certain yearning for truth.

He didn't bother much with the old Zika line this time, explaining instead that he didn't get into golf to try to "grow the game" but to win major championships. And there was an unspoken implication that if you don't like that, frankly you can shove it.

He might have added that, by the way, the Olympics is not some "good cause" to which he is refusing to make a donation, it is in fact a horrible institution in its own way -but there was no need.

Moreover his remarks at Troon about what he feels is the deep inadequacy of dope-testing in golf, were so off-colour in these surroundings, it was almost like one of those American commentators mentioning to the CEO of Shell that all contributions are gratefully received, but hey buddy, it might also be an idea to stop polluting the Gulf of Mexico.

No, at this intersection of big golf and big money, perhaps the most significant moments were provided not by Rory, but by the others who followed him one by one in announcing that they wouldn't be going down there.

We hear a lot about "groupthink", and the damage it can cause, how an entirely wrong idea can be endorsed even by those who strongly suspect that it is wrong, but who feel it is more important for them to remain part of the group.

As they dropped out with a certain inevitability, you could get the impression that they were driven less by anxiety about the Zika virus, than the anxiety about their status in that seven-star cocoon - that when Rory made his statement, the rest felt obliged to follow him lest they be regarded as anything other than top players, these one-man corporations who are constantly measuring the size of their vital attributes against those of their nearest competitors.

Of course such juvenile attitudes are thankfully rare in corporate culture in general, otherwise the world would be in an awful state.

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