Thursday 18 July 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Ability and civility aren't always twin traits in tournament golfers'

Sergio Garcia. Photo: AFP/Getty
Sergio Garcia. Photo: AFP/Getty

Dermot Gilleece

It seemed odd to find Sergio Garcia spoiling for a fight, given that he had just shot a closing 66 which contained a stunning back nine of 31. Especially odd was that it was about to secure him fourth place in the US Masters.

Noting his mood, a colleague from the fairly sparse media gathering on the afternoon of April 11, 2004, wondered about the Spaniard's barely disguised resentment.

"You guys . . . that's the way you guys are," came the response. "It's been going on for a while. So it's nice to see how fair you guys are. When we're playing well, we're the best . . ."

I remember being shocked by the bitterness which appeared devoid of context. Mind you, Garcia's temperament was notoriously brittle, even then. And given the disgraceful behaviour which led to last week's disqualification in Saudi Arabia, not much seems to have changed over the years, despite the blessing of a Masters jacket bestowed at Augusta National in 2017.

As it happened, he chose this celebrated venue for another cutting outburst, this time against his fellow players. After a fourth-round 71 on Sunday, April 8, 2012, he informed us: "Everything I say, I say it because I feel it. If I didn't mean it, I couldn't stand here and lie like a lot of the guys do."

He's not the only tournament golfer to have been tormented into turmoil by a notoriously demanding game. But where Colin Montgomerie's tantrums prompted more amusement than outrage, Garcia's behaviour has had a nasty dimension, as in spitting in the cup and deliberately vandalising greens.

And when such steam-letting fails to fit the moment, there is always the media as a soft target. In which context, it seems appropriate to mention English professional Paul Casey who, as a UNICEF ambassador, declined to appear in the Saudi event due to concerns over the country's human rights record.

Later in 2004, when Garcia's Augusta anger had been stored in the memory, Casey gave an interview to The Sunday Times in which he was less than complimentary about his adopted country. He talked about learning to "properly hate" Americans during the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills. Describing their fans as "bloody annoying", he added that the vast majority of Americans didn't know what was going on. All this where he had chosen to make his home.

The matter really came to a head in November of that year when Casey and compatriot Luke Donald won the World Cup for England in Seville. By that stage, Americans were properly incensed by the story's embellishment in the Daily Mirror under the heading: "Americans are Stupid. I Hate Them, says Ryder Cup Star Paul Casey."

These disclosures remained dangerously fresh in American minds through that winter, causing Nike to question whether it would be appropriate, in the circumstances, to continue moves to sign Casey on contract. They even went so far as to seek the opinion of their top client, Tiger Woods. In the event, he gave Casey a favourable nod which proved decisive. When all of this was going on, I happened to have a chat with the author of The Sunday Times piece.

And he told me that at no stage did Casey attempt to disown those strident comments by seeking refuge in time-worn excuses about being misquoted or having his words taken out of context.

Rather did he tell The Guardian: "I thought the original story was fine." Which I found hugely impressive, elevating Casey to the status of seriously good egg. Just like Pádraig Harrington, who made no attempt to hide from his much-publicised dislike of Garcia which, incidentally, was sorted out amicably in Ashford Castle at the April 2017 wedding of Rory McIlroy.

Meanwhile, for me, a favourite golfing quote is the one by Bernard Darwin of The Times at Royal Portrush in 1951. "[Max] Faulkner", barked the doyen of golf-writers within minutes of the triumphant final putt, "I understand you've won the Open. Sit there and I'll write about you."

Such an approach to today's top players would be met with derision. Even for leading American magazine, Sports Illustrated, 10 minutes with Woods became quite a challenge when they attempted to set up a preview piece for the 2006 Masters.

For the writer, John Garrity, the process began in Hawaii the previous November when the magazine "brokered a deal to put me on Tiger's pro-am team at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf." The outcome? "Tiger is merely a disembodied voice saying 'Good swing there', when you hit a nice shot," wrote Garrity.

Further attempts at putting flesh on Tiger bones brought Garrity to faraway fairways in Dubai and into contact with business associates of Woods. Eventually, a meeting was arranged in a small room close to a private airport in Los Angeles where, by his own admission, Garrity felt like he had been put on a stop-watch.

He later calculated that in 2006, Woods earned $11,941,827 in prize money and roughly $90m from appearance fees, endorsements, corporate outings, bonuses, speaking engagements, books, licensing fees, instructional videos and Tiger Woods-branded products, ranging from wine to grass seed.

Garrity figured a further $600 from incidentals, giving an estimated total income of $101,942,427. Which, on the basis of an eight-hour working day, valued his 10-minute interview at $8,168.46.

Against this background, we scribes shouldn't be all that surprised when intended quarries give us short shrift. However, for someone of Garcia's standing - with 13 fewer Majors than the great one - it hardly seems unreasonable to expect consistently better treatment than he dispenses to golf greens.

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