Saturday, December 31, 2011

Who Will You Root For?

The latest Golf Channel spot hyping the upcoming 2012 PGA golf season uses the tagline: “Who will you root for?” accompanied by several quick little vignettes showing the lighter side of a number of the more engaging pro golfers you see playing PGA events. Seeing these spots over the last week or so has raised to the surface of my mind a question which has lain latent for some time – “Do I root for one player over another, or do I root for good golf?”

Cheering on “your” team is a time-honored tradition in sport, and it makes sense when there is some sort of connection—for instance, cheering on your high school or college football/baseball/basketball team, or even a local professional sports franchise. In the case of the sports teams from your high school or college, the athletes on the team may be your friends and classmates.

The connection becomes much more tenuous once the leap is made to professional sports; professional athletes in the Big 3 team sports (baseball, football, basketball) are guns-for-hire, and since the advent of free agency they are highly mobile, and generally have no ties to the community the team represents and no loyalty to to their franchise beyond the terms of their contract. Still, a fan can root for the local team, identifying with, and attaching their loyalty to, the franchise, no matter who is wearing the uniform.

Golf, however, is different. No teams, no franchises—the players are all “free agents” (actually, more like individual contractors…). So, when you watch golf on TV, or at a tournament, do you root for a specific player because he is from your home state, went to your college, or just seems like he is a nice guy? Or… do you just root for good golf?

I have examined this question in some depth recently, because for the last year I have been following professional golf more closely than I have in the past: writing about it, thinking about it, and reading more closely what the professional media people write about it. In the midst of the more focused attention I have been paying to the larger picture when it comes to professional golf, it has occurred to me that rooting for a particular player to win a tournament is, in effect, rooting for a millionaire to make another million bucks… and how much sense does that make?

It’s difficult to watch a golf tournament and not nurture at least a small, deeply-hidden kernel of desire for a particular player to come out on top if they are in contention, but whenever the “cheer ’em on” impulse sneaks up on me while watching a golf tournament, I do my best to suppress it and summon up a dispassionate demeanor.

Sportswriter Dan Jenkins addressed the issue, in his usual light-hearted way, in his 2008 novel, The Franchise Babe. His protagonist, sportswriter Jack Brannon, becomes friendly with a rising young LPGA star named Ginger Clayton while following her over the course of a few weeks for a magazine story and, in the usual lucky manner of Dan’s main characters, becomes more than just friendly with the young golfer’s attractive, divorced mother, Thurlene. In the final round of a fictionalized major tournament, Jack is overheard by another sportswriter, Cy Ronack (a thinly-veiled nod to Jenkins’ friend, real-life golf writer Ron Sirak), cheering on the young golfer while she makes a run for the win:
‘Ginger’s iron shot to the sixteenth grabbed a chair. The shot gave her an inviting eight-foot birdie putt. It prompted a loud “Oh, yeah!” out of Thurlene, and an audible “All right!” out of me. Which drew a glance from Cy Ronack, who said, “I’ve always heard that journalists are impartial.”

I said, “We are—I’m rooting for my story.” ’

I used to root for one player over another when I watched golf, based on the factors I mentioned above. I would generally root for Phil Mickelson in preference to other players because Phil seems like a nice guy, because he has had a number of personal obstacles to overcome lately, etc.; or if Phil was not in contention, I might root for another player because he’s from California (Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, Anthony Kim, Rickie Fowler, to name a few) or because he seemed like a nice guy (Matt Kuchar, Jonathan Byrd, Paul Goydos, Steve Stricker). If no player for whom I felt any sort of connection happened to be in contention in a tournament, I just sat back and waited to see who came out on top.

Of course it is unsportsmanlike to actively root against a particular golfer, and I never do. There are some players for whom I have no particular affinity, or whose on-course behavior I find lacking (sorry to say, but Tiger Woods falls into this category), but if one of these players is in contention I try to maintain a neutral attitude.

Lately, though I do not have the professional journalist’s obligation to remain impartial, I can’t bring myself to root for any particular golfer to win a tournament, because in most cases I would be—as I mentioned above—rooting for a millionaire to make another million dollars.

You might say that rooting for your favorite pro team from one of the Big 3 sports is doing the same thing, but in those cases the athletes aren’t directly earning a big paycheck for winning a particular game. Sure, the top athletes in those sports make stupid money, but it’s as part of a contract, not for each game. This is another aspect of professional golf which differs from the Big 3 team sports—individual performance leads to individual gain. (In fact, if a golfer doesn’t play well enough and misses the cut—no paycheck. Pro golfers are the ultimate private contractors of professional sports.) This difference between the Big 3 team sports and golf reinforces the “no root” rule—cheer on an individual player, and you are not cheering for a team to make it to the playoffs, or win the big championship—you are cheering for one guy to get richer.

Of course not all pro golfers are millionaires, but you have to get pretty far down the 2011 money list (#90, as a matter of fact…) to find a guy who didn’t make at least $1 million in official on-course earnings this season. Fifty-four of those ninety guys made over a million dollars in the 2011 season without even winning a tournament. Scroll down the list to #143 and you find the first guy whose on-course income drops below half a million dollars; scroll even further down the list, to #183, and you find the first guy whose on-course earnings were below a quarter of a million dollars.

The upshot of all this is that I don’t—I can’t—root for any of these guys, but I do root for great golf. I watch professional golf, on TV and in person, because I love to see the skill these guys (and gals—the LPGA ladies rock…) display at a difficult, capricious, maddening game that commands so much of my attention and interest. I watched professional golf on TV, off and on, before I started playing, but I appreciate it much more now than I used to—and that’s because I now have a greater appreciation for how damned hard it is to do what they do.

When I’m watching a tournament, I’m rooting for the golfer who is standing over a 30-foot downhill left-to-right-breaking putt, on a green that rolls like a linoleum floor, to sink that putt—because it’s hard to do.

I am rooting for the golfer who has a second shot on a long par-4 to a triple-contoured green with bunkers left and long and water right to hit the shot and hold the green – because it’s hard to do.

I’m rooting for the golfer faced with a tee shot to a U.S. Open fairway that’s been narrowed and tweaked toward a cliff that drops to the Pacific Ocean, to hit that fairway, stay out of the rough, and have a chance at a good shot across the cliffs to the narrow, bunker-guarded green on the other side (you may recognize that I am talking about the 8th at Pebble Beach here…) – because it’s hard to do.

So, I don’t root for golfers – I root for good golf; and usually, week in, week out, whether it’s the PGA, the European Tour, the LPGA, the Champions Tour, or the Nationwide Tour, I get to see not only good golf, but great golf.

I try not to think about the private jets, posh mansions, Merry-Christmas-to-me sports cars (Paula Creamer that was—she posted a photo of her pretty white “Christmas-present-to-me” Porsche to her Twitter account a day or two ago; I’m surprised she didn’t get it in pink…) and all the other trappings of the quite ridiculous professional athlete lifestyle that accompany life in the upper echelons of the sport. I put all that other stuff aside, and I root for golf.

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