Members of the LPGA are rightly protesting Golf Digest’s decision to put non-golfer Paulina Gretzky on its cover. Liam Day believes it says as much about the sorry state of golf as it does about the continuing sexism in the publishing world.
Some members of the LPGA are upset that Paulina Gretzky appears, scantily clad, on the cover of the latest issue of Golf Digest.
They are right to be. Paulina Gretzky is not a golfer. She is the wife of a golfer, the daughter of famous parents, and the walking definition of a modern celebrity: someone who is famous for being well-known, her career fueled by her Instagram account as much as anything else.
The magazine’s excuse for putting her on its cover is spurious at best. The article in which she’s featured is about 6 moves to lower scores, but as Ms. Gretzky admits she once, while teeing off, swung a club and missed the ball entirely, how useful can her suggestions really be. (Clearly, I’m in danger of taking the magazine’s excuse too literally.)
The female golfers who have spoken out about the cover rightly wonder whether the magazine couldn’t have found a woman who actually plays the game for a living to showcase. In fact, the last time a member of the LPGA appeared on the cover of Golf Digest was 2008.
All of this is exactly right, but not what I want to talk about. Not that it isn’t important. It’s important to denounce the kind of shallow sexism being displayed here. It’s just that denouncement is likely to come from many, many quarters in this particular instance (if it hasn’t already) and simply adding to the chorus wouldn’t, in fact, be adding very much at all.
What I would like to explore a little is what the cover says about the current state of men’s golf, which, if you haven’t noticed, and, considering its current state, you probably haven’t, is not exactly robust. The game has only two stars, one tarnished for half a decade now by scandal, who hasn’t won a major championship in 6 years, but who is still the biggest draw for many fans, as evidenced by the Black Monday-like drop in price for tickets to the Master’s on the secondary market after he announced he would not be playing in this year’s tournament.
Yes, the game is probably as good as it’s ever been. In addition to Tiger and Phil, there are a slew of young players who will most likely win multiple major championships over the course of their careers, including Paulina Gretzky’s husband, Dustin Johnson, who has 6 top 10 finishes in majors in his short career to date. But that may be part of the problem.
The great A.J. Liebling, in his book The Sweet Science, called boxing the quintessential urban sport and auto racing the quintessential suburban one, due to the backseat human skill and endurance take to technology. More and more, the same can be said about golf. As club faces have gotten larger and larger, and their ever-expanding sweet spots anchored by hollow backs and other advances in the design of clubs that are made with the lightest possible material to increase the speed at which players can bring the club head through the ball, it increasingly seems that anyone with a half-decent swing can hit their driver 300 yards with some modicum of accuracy.
In addition to the game’s mechanization, the PGA Tour and its sponsors seem to enforce a rigid image on golfers. Most of the American golfers under 35 look like they were produced on an assembly line. They’re cookie-cutter. Even Richie Fowler, the supposed bad boy on the tour, always looks like he was designed by focus group. Wearing orange and playing golf with the brim of your hat up doesn’t make you a bad-ass.
Gone seems to be genuine personality and with it the spontaneity that makes someone like Phil Mickelson worth watching. Mickelson turns 44 in a couple of months, which means the window is not yet closed on his chance to add to the list of 5 major championships he’s already won, but what makes Mickelson interesting will most assuredly disappear with him as his career does decline. Mickelson’s swing is loose, which results in a tendency to spray the ball, which results in a tendency to get in trouble on the course, which results in a tendency to get out of said trouble with some of the most imaginative and miraculous shots in the history of the game.
Still, there have been times, a lot of times, in fact, when Mickelson hasn’t been able to pull off a miracle. It’s one of the reasons he has, in addition to winning 5, finished second or third in another 14 major championships. What makes him interesting are the what-might-have-beens.
In many ways, Mickelson reminds me of another 5-time major champion, the late Seve Ballesteros. The image that sticks with me of the great Spaniard was of him running out of the woods after hooking a low iron around a tree and running the ball up to the green, which he had absolutely no earthly right to reach from where he lay. He seemed to do this so often, I can hardly ever remember him now hitting a fairway during his playing days. All I recall is that image: him running low in a half-crouch to avoid the branches of the trees his ball somehow avoided out onto the fairway to catch a glimpse of where his shot wound up.
In 1988, the U.S. Open was played at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, about 3 miles from where I grew up. That summer I worked as a greenskeeper on the course. I was just 16 and, because I worked there, got to see most of the tournament. I would not have been able to afford tickets otherwise. Though I was thrilled to be working one of the premier sporting events in the country and to meet so many of the great golfers in history (Nickalaus, Watson, Faldo, Norman), the week’s schedule was fairly brutal. As we could not be working on the course with players on it, we needed to arrive in the morning by 3:30 so that we would have time to get the course ready before the first group teed off at 7:00. We then followed the last group out, finishing up around 8:00 in the evening, the entire week of the tournament.
One evening as I left the shed where our lockers were located, I spotted Ballesteros standing in the gloaming in front of the clubhouse, from which he’d just emerged. Though he was then still near the top of his game—he would, later that summer, win his fifth and final major at the British Open—he had not played well that week, finishing in a tie for 32nd. Yet, despite what was his obvious disappointment, he stood there for what seemed like an hour signing autographs. He didn’t smile or joke with the fans who thrust slips of papers and visors and t-shirts at him, but I did notice that he signed every last one, including mine. He didn’t need a PR flak to tell him it was the right thing to do.
Now, to be fair to today’s players, I’m sure most of them are good guys and take their responsibilities to the fans as seriously as Ballesteros did, but I can’t help, at a time when everything else feels so scripted, being skeptical of their ingenuousness whenever a network camera lingers on them interacting with fans and, as if on cue, a talking head in the studio goes on effusively about how much they give back to the game. I always feel like I’m being snowed.
I don’t want technical proficiency and feel-good moments that feel less good than manufactured. I want imperfection and disappointment. I want John Daly chain smoking his way through 18 holes. I want Jean Van de Velde blowing a three-stroke lead on the last hole of the British Open. I want a disappointed golfer who understands that signing autographs may be the right thing to do, but doesn’t feel the need to hide the fact he would rather be doing almost anything else after underachieving in one of the world’s biggest tournaments.
Ron Shelton, who has written and directed two of the better sports movies in the last 30 years, understood this perfectly. In Tin Cup, his hero, Roy McAvoy, a washed up local pro played by Kevin Costner, loses the U.S. Open because he goes for an almost impossible shot on the last hole of the tournament, rather than play it safe. (Rather eerily foreshadowing what would happen to Van de Velde just three years later.) The PGA needs more Roy McAvoys. Because, without them, golf, never exactly the most gripping of spectator sports, will become even more tedious to watch.
That, as much as the obvious desperation of Golf Digest’s editors, who, by putting a scantily clad woman on their magazine’s cover, resorted to the oldest trick in sexism’s book to try and drum up interest in their magazine (though, in a sense, they succeeded, if even for a news cycle or two), is the lesson here. Without genuine personality, without the danger of failure that comes with taking chances on the course, there can be no excitement. To use another cheesy film reference, golf needs more Mavericks and fewer Icemen. Icemen may make corporate sponsors feel safe, but they don’t sell magazines. One can only hope that neither will Paulina Gretzky.