Wednesday 23 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: Golf shames itself by burying head in the sand over Garcia's racist remark

Sergio Garcia’s childish volleys in Tiger Woods’ direction have become an ugly soundtrack to the Spaniard’s career, which promised so much
Sergio Garcia’s childish volleys in Tiger Woods’ direction have become an ugly soundtrack to the Spaniard’s career, which promised so much
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It's almost half a century since Charlie Sifford felt the need to protest that he'd never disgraced anybody, "with a golf club or a salad fork."

Sifford is 90 now, living in Charlotte and – most probably – feeling a little incredulous this week that the grim comedies of Wentworth should underline professional golf's continuing struggle to distance itself from racial stereotype and prejudice.

Charlie and Tiger Woods have little in common, beyond the colour of their skin. Actually, chances are Sifford even feels sold out by Tiger. For Woods has done little to foster real diversity in the sport, his every public utterance still shaped by the heavy hand of corporatism.

The fact that Tiger, today, is the only player of African-American heritage on tour speaks volumes for the paucity of progress made since Sifford first broke the USPGA colour line in 1961.

Woods has never held himself up as a black man breaking down barriers, because he didn't need to.

By the time he'd won three US Amateur titles, American golf recognised him as an escape route from the drift towards dull, anonymous winners, who, to the paying public at least, seemed indistinguishable from one another.

So, where Sifford had galleries kicking his ball out of bounds or hiding it under litter, Woods ambushed the attention of a whole new audience. He made golf interesting in places the game's rulers had never previously considered as potential markets.

PAYMASTERS

Tiger's personality was, thus, shaped by his conglomerate paymasters.

He never had time to be a kid, nor motive to be a missionary. The world engaged with him purely as a brand and, in return, he communicated – essentially – by press release.

He was professional sport's perfect cartoon until that day he drove into the fire hydrant. Then, suddenly, he was a black man again.

The Tiger seen since hasn't been especially likeable. Knowledge shapes perception and, nowadays, any eruptions of gracelessness on a golf course are framed in the mind's eye by awareness of the epic lie his life became. Hence, what might once have been categorised as immaturity is interpreted, plainly, as bad manners.

But then, in professional sport, stories that seem too good to be true invariably turn out to be just that.

When a teenage Sergio Garcia did that endearing little hop, skip and jump whilst following the flight of his ball at Medinah Country Club in '99, millions of hearts skipped a beat.

Here was a kid gloriously free of the self-awareness that turns so many pro golfers into clunking automatons.

Garcia smiled most of the time and played golf shots that were the equivalent of rolled dice.

But look at him now. Long before his feud with Woods took that ugly lurch towards racism this week, golf seemed to have taken the Spaniard's charm and rinsed it out of his persona like ink from a school uniform. He became resentful of his failures rather than enlightened by his successes.

And the absence of a Major win, slowly, came to define him.

So, Garcia's childish volleys in Woods' direction, dating all the way back to Bethpage in '02, became a kind of ugly soundtrack to his career.

Even the media seemed to be becoming bored with his behaviour until Tuesday's 'fried chicken' remark left him sitting in front of the world's cameras, looking like a man who'd swallowed a walnut.

The entire sport has been at pains since to emphasise the depth of Garcia's remorse, as if such apologies are measurable on some kind of sincerity index.

Trouble is, everything gets whitewashed – as happened with Tiger's own famously creepy mea culpa production – by the awareness that vast commercial contracts are difficult to reconcile with aberrant behaviour.

TaylorMade-adidas, thus, issued a statement this week to say that they are "continuing to review the matter" of Garcia's remark.

This is corporate-speak for praying that a gust of wind might just take the smell away. A refuge preferred by the game's authorities too.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and European Tour Chief Executive George O'Grady both brought to mind the sketch of a policeman directing onlookers away from the site of an exploding fireworks factory, all the time insisting "move along folks, nothing to see here!"

Indeed, O'Grady's own revelation that many of Garcia's friends were, Heaven forbid, "coloureds" hinted at a man who might just strike a match to check a gas leak.

Golf shamed itself this week by failing to recognise the fundamental harm of racial stereotyping and choosing not to suspend Garcia for perpetuating one of the oldest.

Maybe, historically, Woods has not helped matters either by remaining a silent voice in any push for change. In this, he is certainly no Charlie Sifford, a man whose victory in the '69 Los Angeles Open led US Masters officials to instantly change the rules of entry to Augusta.

Many years later, when the possibility of an invite was mooted, Sifford declared: "A long time ago they thought all golfers should be white and all caddies should be black. I've never been to Augusta and I'm never going."

Golf could have done with that kind of candour at Wentworth this week. Instead it got a community just staring at its shoes.

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