As we balance the ledger for 2021, it seems assured that a handful of the year’s most memorable moments will have impact that extends far beyond the confines of the calendar.
Like Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters win, and its promise of inspiring a generation of Asian talent. Or Phil Mickelson’s improbable major championship victory at age 50, setting a new benchmark for elderly excellence. Or Tiger Woods’ car wreck, which cast in stark relief the impermanence of lives and careers, and which summoned a raw appreciation both for what he has gifted us and for whatever his battered body will permit henceforth.
But 2021 was also a year in which even the most stubborn of ostriches had to lift their heads and concede that golf doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that like every sport it is inextricably entwined with the wider world, and that reminders of this fact are often jarring. The painful lessons we learned in ’21 will not conclude with the demise of December.
First came a reckoning with language. The year was nine days old when Justin Thomas missed a short putt in Maui and berated himself with a homophobic slur. His response was swift—he owned it with an immediate and fulsome apology—but swifter still were the factions who rallied around the controversy, one too quick to declare it a capitol offense, the other contemptuously eager to dismiss any hurt as mere political correctness. The ugly episode served notice that the standards of speech and conduct demanded by today’s corporations and consumers (an entirely flexible measure) also apply to this most hidebound of sports.
A few weeks later, the PGA Tour faced a reckoning with its new reality, even if the organization shows no outward sign of having grasped the importance of what happened that Sunday afternoon at Torrey Pines. It was hardly shocking that Patrick Reed acted as his own rules official on the way to winning the Farmers Insurance Open, lifting a ball he claimed was embedded before an actual rules official could arrive to deliver a verdict. Video evidence was inconclusive, but far from exculpatory, so PointsBet—an official gaming partner of the Tour—refunded wagers.
The scrutiny that comes with legalized sports betting is at odds with the Tour’s generous attitude to questionable on-course conduct by its members, a benevolence long personified by the now-departed rules honcho Slugger White, the Mrs. Doubtfire of the nanny state. An insistence that concerned parties are gentlemen, or a reliance on artful wording about intent, is no defense against punters who are convinced that video evidence tells a different story. When it happens again—and it will—the Tour is woefully ill-equipped for the firestorm. Reed’s ball drop will have ramifications that linger well beyond that other ball drop next week in Times Square.
We also saw a reckoning with golf’s shameful past. Lee Elder’s presence at the ceremonial tee shot opening the Masters was as close to an apology as we’ll ever see from Augusta National. It was crudely symbolic that even the lone moment accorded Elder was soiled by Wayne Player, an opportunistic waster who, unlike Elder, owed his place on the tee solely to inheritance and parental indulgence.
Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus clap as Lee Elder is introduced on the 1st tee during the first round of The Masters Tournament. (Photo: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)
Elder’s death seven months later was a glum reminder of how little real redress he was granted for what he endured, and how few honors he received for what he accomplished. There were tributes aplenty, but words are cheap. Elder died without being honored by the World Golf Hall of Fame, the Masters Tournament or sundry other back-slapping bodies that are forever congratulating themselves on how far golf has come.
Elder’s legacy—that it is necessary to take a moral stand against those who dehumanize others—is hardly less relevant with his passing. It lies at the heart of golf’s reckoning with its future, the specter of which loomed large before 2021 and which will likely continue into ’22 and beyond.
One thing changed this year with the Saudi Arabian government’s effort to hijack professional golf. They recruited a front man, Greg Norman, who drops vapid jargon and false equivalencies as freely as his employer does missiles on Yemeni civilians. But two things haven’t changed: the proposed Super Golf League still hasn’t signed any players, and the scheme is still solely about normalizing the image of a regime that exhibits contempt for human rights.
This reckoning will continue in 2022 and beyond. Oil grants the specter enviable staying power. If nothing else, the Saudis are offering a reminder that the values on which golf prides itself—integrity, honor, respectability—are not immutable, but must be defended against charlatans and chiselers, some of whom are card-carrying members of the PGA Tour.