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Great Dividers

It’s not just courses that polarize the golf populace—here are 10 fine ways to start a spirited 19th-hole debate

By: James A. Frank

Appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of LINKS.

MAYBE IT'S BECAUSE GOLF is such a mental game—or perhaps it’s all that down time we have between shots to contemplate—whatever the reason, we have never had a shortage of incendiary issues. Remember the sturm und drang when graphite shafts were introduced? The predictions of impending doom that accompanied spikeless shoes? The stymie rule? Island greens? And think we’ll ever agree on a “fifth major”?

What follows are the most contentious concerns of the moment, presented without bias and in no particular order, since that would only cause more argument. To quote Fox News (and if that doesn’t get you going, nothing will): “We report. You decide.”

Donald Trump. Maybe it’s the hair, or the bombast, or the fact that The Donald seems to be everywhere. The man gets under our skin. But he also gets his hands dirty, and arguably has done more for golf in the last few years than any other developer. While his pronouncements about the project in Scotland can be annoying (“greatest course in the world” should be his middle name), he set out to build something special and he succeeded. Plus he has built, bought, or saved more than a dozen clubs, courses, and resorts in the U.S., and while the clubhouses receive big supplies of his picture to hang on the walls, he cares about the courses, the members, and the guests. Trump may be full of hot air, but at least as far as golf is concerned, he has yet to be an ill wind.

Long Putters. For most of us, the game is about getting the ball in the hole and any device that makes that happen—as long as it’s legal—is fine. The Rules of Golf don’t prohibit anchoring the putter against one’s chest, chin, or forearm, but purists shriek that such actions violate the “spirit” of the game. This issue—golf’s controversy of the moment—reignites whenever a Tour player wins with a “broom-handle” or “belly” putter. But the pros, especially seniors, have been going long for nearly 30 years. Why the hoopla now, when the game is struggling to attract new players who might find this alternative method an easier, and more welcoming, technique? There is no short answer.

John Daly. Has any player had so much talent and done so little with it? He was the People’s Champion, capturing two majors and countless fans who loved his distinctive swing and rough-and-tumble backstory. We still marvel at this Redneck Rembrandt, so long off the tee and so skilled around the greens. But like many artists he is plagued by demons, particularly a string of addictions—to Diet Coke, gambling, marriage, get-rich-quick schemes, ugly pants. About once a year now we’re treated to a whiff of past magic—until he throws a fit, storms off a course, and breaks our hearts yet again. Many still want to love him, but put lipstick on a razorback and it’s still a bore.

Bifurcated Rules. How often do you play for a million-dollar purse? Are your drives routinely flying 300 yards? When was the last time you heard your name announced on the first tee in front of a crowd of thousands? Golf at the professional level is very different from our weekend matches, which is why some people argue for two sets of rules. The pros would stick with the current, take-no-prisoners Rule Book (except perhaps for a shorter ball), while the rest of us would gladly have more leeway on equipment, minor infractions, and ways to make golf more fun and more welcoming. While such a change makes sense, what makes golf great is the fact that we all play under the same regulations; take that unanimity away and our connection to tradition—as well as the game’s best—goes away, to be replaced by chaos, or worse, tennis.

Golf In The Kingdom. Do you view the golf course as a cathedral? The time spent playing a chance to commune with nature and an opportunity to attain physical and mental nirvana? Do you believe that “life is golf in microcosm”? If so, this is the book for you. Michael Murphy’s 1971 spiritual trek over the links of Burningbush has attracted legions of acolytes who hail fictional golf pro Shivas Irons as a god and his lessons as commandments. For others, such mysticism is malarkey, and Murphy’s Zen-inspired promise of deeper truth actually pretty shallow stuff.

Tiger Woods. From the moment he turned pro, Tiger has been at the center of every golf conversation: Will he catch Jack? Will he break all the records? Is he the best ever? Many of his feats lived up to the hype—Augusta in 1997, Pebble Beach in 2000, Torrey Pines in 2008 (on a broken leg, no less)—but every act of heroism was balanced by an absence of humanity: monosyllabic growls to the media, fans ignored, obscenities and clubs tossed. Then the private-life meltdown better suited to the National Enquirer than a National Champion. Many were pleased, others appalled, and this push-me-pull-you of emotions continues as he attempts to climb back up the ladder. But whatever his chances for redemption, we can’t help but be a little ashamed, and annoyed, for the stain he has put on the game.

Compulsory Caddies. Every American golfer who plays in Britain comes back extolling the caddies—part Sherpa, part shaman, all character. On unfamiliar links courses, these faithful servants point the way and find gorse-gobbled balls while telling jokes in incomprehensible accents. Why can’t we have the same at home? But when we’re told we must, we object, angry at having to pay, walk, and suffer the indignities of showing off our flawed games in front of sniggering strangers. Home or abroad, a capable caddie is worth much more than a few shots a round. Wouldn’t it be nice if the mandatory marriage came with a good-time guarantee?

The Cult of Hogan. Take nothing away from the man’s accomplishments: Ben Hogan turned himself into a champion thanks to hard, hard work. Before the days of swing gurus and videotape, he analyzed his technique, changed it, and made himself a legend. But in an era when pro golf fostered camaraderie and fun, he purposely stood apart and aloof. Was it necessary to be so cold (“The Wee Ice Mon”) to be so good? Was such single-minded devotion healthy? And do you really care about the difference between pronating and supinating? Hogan rarely smiled on the course, yet he just might have been laughing at us. But he left us one unarguable truth: We’ve got to dig it out of the dirt for ourselves.

Johnny Miller. Not the player, whose hall-of-fame credentials are above reproach, but the NBC analyst, who never seems to have a nice word to say about anyone, thinks the game and the players were better 40 years ago, and loves to hear himself talk. And talk. A smart and thoughtful man, Miller has been around golf his entire life and is capable, as few others are, of deep thought into the game. He’s not afraid to criticize and is a student of the swing, able to explain his criticism logically. Until he starts jaw-flapping, over-reading grain, describing every shot as a “trap-draw” (many current players wish he’d fall into one), and using his nasal monotone to offer blistering comments based on personal bias and limited observation. Some pros think he’s out of touch, while most viewers think he’s the best on the tube. Are his words sour grapes or sweet truth? Roger, does he have a shot?

Sergio Garcia. Pity poor Sergio. He had the misfortune of coming along at the wrong time: In the era of Tiger, a player whose mind was as focused as Sergio’s was fuzzy; in the wake of Seve Ballesteros, the flamboyant toreador against whom all Spanish golfers are judged; and in a 24/7 media maelstrom when every grip squeeze, whiny excuse, and tear is recorded, reported, and analyzed. Perhaps Sergio’s most happy moment, and our warmest image of him, is running after his devil-may-care recovery shot at the 1999 PGA Championship, when he lost to Tiger but showed such promise. Fans love his big personality and bigger smile, but his professional accomplishments remain relatively  small, with only 8 victories in the U.S., 14 others around the world, and no majors. And then to admit he can’t win the big ones? Somewhere Seve is crying, too.

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