Friday, September 29, 2006

(Masters, 2006)


Now, thankfully, that the Ryder Cup is over, it’s time for the silly season with its giant purses and meaningless titles. Can you spell “Franklin Templeton Shootout?” Hard-core golf fans are already in early Masters countdown. Martha Burke, for all the vilification, did brave work in trying to force a measure of self-reflection and change upon the corporate dons of Augusta. What a dangerously radical, un-American idea she advocated…insisting that women be allowed as club members!

A tradition unlike any other indeed. That tradition once included Jim Crow, and barring all African-Americans but caddies, waiters, and maids. Then-chairman Hootie Johnson and his Augusta politburo manageed to maintain the anachronistıc men-only status quo, at least for now. The club had a big assist from CBS (which essentially ignored the questions Burke raised) and the majority of tour players (none spoke out for women's right to join, and a number appeared to support the male-only policy). Larger principles of equity aside, who'd want to belong to any all-male organization anyway? I went to all-male Haverford College for my first year in college just before it turned co-ed. It was awful.

As has been said a million times, Augusta is a lovely course; and there’s much to admire about the Masters. But at some point, one hopes the club will be forced to address its exclusionary gender policy. You’d think that Bill Gates and the other would-be enlightened corporate oligarchy membership would be embarrassed to belong as it stands. It would also be nice to see Augusta’s Brahmins lose some of their smugness and sense of self-congratulation. As anyone who has read Curt Sampson’s fine The Masters knows, the story of Augusta mirrors the ugliness, prejudice, and discrimination of Jim Crow America (and the subsequent offıcially-sanctioned,The Making of the Masters by David Owen made some useful corrections, and yet too often bordered on apologia for the club founders).

And it would be wrong to imagine that racial hierarchy and politics belong only to the by-gone Masters past. An almost apartheid-feel still prevails in some respects. The well-heeled paying fans -- like Augusta members themselves -- are overwhelmingly white. Those doing the toilet-cleaning, garbage pick-up, minimum wage rent-a-cop gate security are mostly poor and African-American. In their numbered yellow overalls and hats, the trash-pickers have a bit the look of convict highway chain gang work crews of an older South, mostly young black men doing society's dirty work.

At a practice round this spring, I used the bathroom. A middle-aged African American attendant was stationed there to mop the floor and clean up the stray paper towels dropped by white patrons. "No Tipping," a sign posted by the club authorities read. It was in the tradition of founder Clifford Roberts' famous suspicion and penny-pinching with workers (Sampson reports that Roberts required concession workers to cut holes in their overalls to prevent them from filching spare change). Although a complex character who left part of his money to Planned Parenthood, Roberts was a man of his time about race. He sent n- jokes to his friend President Eisenhower and believed mixed marriages posed a major danger to society. When fending off mounting complaints about the Masters never having had an African American competitor, Roberts retorted that aThai player had been invited the year before. "That boy," he said, "was as black as the ace of spades."

Of course, the calculus of race is not simple or uniform nowadays. You'll see some wealthy black corporate fans and the faces of a few brown golfers (Vijay Singh, Michael Campbell, and, of course, Tiger Woods). And discrimination or any brand of outright racism are out of fashion in these ostensibly more tolerant times, presumably even among Augusta fans and members. The look of the Masters nonethless remains powerful testimony to the uncanny capacity of hierarchies of race and money (and gender) to shape society no matter how much we'd like to be rid of them.

In short, the Masters "tradition" intertwines prejudice, power, and exclusion with golf drama and beauty. Ever year, the complexity of that past and present are is wiped away in the muzaky CBS theme music; the fuzzy close-ups of azaleas and dogwoods; and the charmingly grainy black-and-white footage of Palmer and other storied champions. A cornerstone of Masters marketing is nostalgia – history with the pain taken out, as the great S.F. Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once put it.

Early this year, I wrote an op-ed about Tiger, the Masters, and the vanishing African American professional golfer that appeared in the Detroit Free-Press, Raleigh News and Observer, The State, and Toronto Daily Mail. It’s below in slightly modified form. I received a number of angry letters and e-mails. Any probing of the politics of race and history at the Masters -- and anything less than the usual hagiography -- seems to trigger an angry defensiveness. Very visible are the emotions of the culture wars, and, in particular, a familiar right-wing, white male aggrievement about affirmative action, feminist politics, environmentalism, opposition to the war in Iraq, and all the rest of what those of Limbaughesque sensibilities imagine to be the wildly satanic, Western Civilization-destroying agendas of the politically correct.

“People like you keep racism alive and well,” wrote one suburban Detroit reader. Another from South Carolina sent a silly puff piece about Bobby Jones – a fascinating, brave, and, like of all of us, imperfect man -- with the single sentence in bold block letters : “NOW THIS PIECE SHOWS PROPER REVERENCE FOR THE MASTERS.” Reverence? Hmm…



By Orin Starn

Golf has long had an image problem.

Many people, after all, consider it a dopey, snobby, boring game for chubby white men in plaid pants. Even golfers sometimes talk down the sport. “Where else could a guy with an IQ like mine make this much money?,” the well-known touring professional Hubert Green once said.

Tiger Woods was supposed to transform golf, especially its whites-only reputation. When this charismatic black prodigy rocketed to stardom a decade ago, there was optimistic talk about the game opening to African Americans and other minorities. It only heightened the story’s drama that Tiger’s breakthrough win came in the 1997 Masters Tournament at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club with its black waiters, caddies, and shoeshine “boys” and exclusive membership of rich white barons of industry.

Then just 21, Tiger knew about prejudice and racial stereotyping from family experience. His father, Earl, the first black baseball player at Kansas State, was forced to stay in substandard Jim Crow hotels away from his teammates. Tiger’s own kindergarten classmates once tied him to a tree and danced around chanting the n-word.

“You’re my hero,” Oprah Winfrey gushed over this young black man taking a white sport by storm.

It’s almost spring now, Masters time again. But a decade after Tiger’s first triumph at Augusta, it has become apparent that the idea of Tiger as his sport’s racial savior was vastly oversold. The truth, Tiger or not, is that the numbers of blacks and other minorities playing professional golf has instead been declining in recent years.

Golf was the last major sport to integrate in the first place. Only a long, bruising campaign led by legendary boxing champion Joe Louis, a golf nut, rolled back the professional tour’s “Caucasians-only” clause in 1961, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier.

The first black professionals suffered every indignity. Charles Sifford, the first African American to win a PGA event, found human feces in the cup at the Phoenix Open; he received telephoned death threats at another tournament. The Masters didn’t invite its first black golfer until 1975. As writer Curt Sampson documents, the idea of a good time for Augusta National members before World War II was watching blindfolded local black teen-agers beat each other bloody in a boxing ring “battle royal,” a few dollars going to the last one standing.

But a cohort of black professional golfers persevered, and there were more than ten black PGA regulars in the 1970s. Hispanic professionals also made their mark, among them Lee Trevino, the smart, garrulous self-described “Super Mex” who became one of the top players of his time. By contrast to the more privileged background of most professionals then and now, Trevino grew up poor in a south Texas shack.

“I was twenty-one years old,” Trevino liked to joke, “before I knew Manual Labor wasn’t a Mexican.”

But consider this: Tiger is today the lone African American among the 125 players on the PGA tour. And there are just two Hispanics, the relatively obscure Robert Gamez and Pat Perez, out on the circuit competing for the more than $250 million in prize money.

A single black golfer, Tim O’Neal, plays the minor league Nationwide tour. The great Althea Gibson and other black women were on the women’s LPGA circuit several decades ago. Now there is not a single African American tour member in spite of the influx of fine Asian and Asian American players, a lesser force in men’s golf.

Even black caddies have almost vanished altogether. As the job became lucrative with mushrooming tournament purses, whites moved in to carry the bags. Tiger’s New Zealand-born caddy, Steve Williams, likely earned about one million dollars last year, a minor celebrity in his own right.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, no one wants to talk about the resegregation of professional golf. The convenient assumption appears to be that Tiger’s stardom has fixed everything and, as a result, that any mention now of “race,” or, Ben Hogan forbid, “racism” would be party pooper political correctness.

Back in 1996, a first Nike commercial introduced Tiger in a hiply grainy video montage. “There are still courses that I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin,” Tiger said in the ad. Nike wanted to market its newest superstar spokesman as a brave racial pioneer in the white country club world.

Since then, Tiger has morphed into a bland, unthreatening corporate pitchman in the Michael Jordan mold. “Republicans by tennis shoes too,” as his Airness explained his refusal to support a campaign to unseat Jesse Helms, the old race-baiting North Carolina senator.

Tiger won’t offend anybody by declaring that his new $1,700 Tiger Woods “Limited Edition” TAG Heuer is “the only watch that I can wear on my wrist without adversely affecting my golf swing.”

Of course, it shouldn’t be up to Tiger to shoulder the burden of raising uncomfortable questions about golf’s failure to integrate. Why shouldn’t white professionals like Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, or Davis Love III say something? No one seems to want to admit that the PGA tour is not so far from looking like a whites-only club all over again.

More deeply, the situation in golf measures the dilemma of race relations in America today. At least in the abstract, most Americans want to get along, and to be rid of the silly, strange yet powerful folk belief that skin color says something essential about the person inside. Even the PGA tour now promotes its “First Tee” program for poor kids with spots featuring adorable black, Hispanic, Asian American, and white boys and girls in a Kumbaya-like image of itself as the embodiment of corporate rainbow coalition values.

And yet, few of us want nowadays to confront the hard, complex questions about why America is still such a segregated, stratified society. The idealism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement has receded into the grainy, almost Jurassic past of black-and-white news footage. A part-fatalistic, part-cynical “race fatigue” instead prevails as if it were pointless even to talk about the divides of color and class in these new times. The film Crash, this year’s Academy Award winner, captures an America where the power of race and racial mistrust is matched only by a jaded lack of any real hope about the possibility of doing anything about it.

Many whites think enough has been done already with legalized discrimination a thing of the past. They are more worried about shopping and schools, taxes and terrorism.

And many blacks and other minorities don’t want to be tokens or social crusaders. Tiger himself has never much liked talking publicly about anything besides his swing, scores, and chances in the latest tournament (and for that matter describes himself as “Cablinasian” as opposed to “black” – part-white, part-black, part-Indian, and part-Asian by way of his Thai mother).

We try to dodge race, but it won’t go away.

If Tiger triumphs again at the Masters, he’ll don the victor’s traditional green jacket to applause from Augusta’s millionaire members, tournament ticketholders, and fellow competitors and their caddies.

He’ll be one of the only brown faces in a sea of white.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

(Weed Golf Club, 2005)


Golf's environmental iımpact has been much debated. Is it a good thing that golf courses now cover an area of the United States more than twice the size of Rhode Island? Opponents -- including groups like the Global Anti-Golf Movement -- underline the dangers. They note the use of insectides and herbicides; the gas and other in-puts for upkeep; the loss of open space; the displacement of older existing communities like African-American ones along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

Golf boosters counter that courses benefit nature. They point to the water filtering and atmospheric cooling benefits of turf grass in the age of global warmıng; the role of golf courses as bird and wildlife sanctuaries; and the fact that land used for golf courses might otherwise be used for more environmentally-unfriendly development, like strip malls and housing developments. Although it has plenty of critics, the new concept of "reconciliation ecology" premises that environmentalists must work within the realities of development and change even as they try to protect what we have left of more unspoiled nature. Cooperation between local environmentalists, government, and golf course owners to restore wetlands would be an example of such work.

A good recent case of golf-style "reconciliation ecology" is the collaboration of the Ellerbee Creek Watershed Association and the North Carolina Department of Transportation with the Hillandale Golf Club (a public course just down the street from where I live). This project freed the small Ellerbee Creek from an ugly drainage ditch; this restored its meander, and allowed for the planting of swamp grass and wildflowers, while creating a bird friendly wetland holding pond. The course looks far better, and the creek is healthy again. The wetlands also serve as a natural filter of oily run-off from nearby Interstate 85. Everyone has benefited in this particular case.

But, of course, there are no siımple answers to many questions around golf's complex environmental impact. In the essay below published originally in a somewhat different version in the Los Angeles Times (July 19, 2005), I reflect on some of the larger issues involved in connection with my own very favorite golf courses in the world -- the Weed Golf Club in northern Calıfornia:


By Orin Starn

What's the single most beautiful place in California? One thinks of Yosemite's dazzling granite grandeur, like the set for some great cosmic opera. Then there's Big Sur with its kaleidoscope of sea spray, black rock and enchanted green forest. This vast and varied state abounds in spectacular natural beauty, even though we seem determined to pave it over as fast as we can for the next mall, subdivision and freeway.

My personal favorite place lies in California's far north near the town of Weed. It's a lovely high-country spot boasting tall stands of sweet-smelling fir and ponderosa pine, a sparkling brook and, best of all, a breathtaking view of perhaps the West's most majestic mountain, the snow-capped volcano of Mt. Shasta.

This Shangri-La of the Siskiyous is not a park or wilderness area. As unlikely as it may sound, it's a little golf course tucked just off Interstate 5. Golf, I know, conjures the image of rich white men in tacky plaid pants, and environmentalists like to bash golf courses for contributing to gated community sprawl, not to mention the tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used to manufacture that velvety green carpet look.

The Weed Golf Club, however, doesn't fit the stereotypes. Anyone can play this public track. It costs just $12 for a full round. You'll pay more than that for a souvenir key chain at the ritzy, blue-ribbon courses in Monterey and Palm Springs that cater to corporate higher-ups and rich golf nuts from Japan and around the world.

The town of Weed itself is no blue blood enclave. This was a company lumber town until the International Paper Co. closed down some 30 years ago. Local boosters have tried to reinvent Weed as a tourist destination ever since the big mill's closing. "I'm high on Weed … California," say the T-shirts for sale at the gas station convenience stores.

Weed will never be a Californian St. Moritz. It has a gritty, working-class feel with the same sad, half-dead old business district as in so many American small towns in the age of Wal-Mart and the other big-box retailers.

You'll see the locals, young and old, at the course. They include firefighters, schoolteachers, retired loggers and cashiers from the McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King along the highway in their free hours. The Weed Golf Club exemplifies the world of the municipal, or "muni" course, a far cry from the proverbial exclusive country club. It's golf democracy in action at these modestly priced, sometimes scruffy tracks nationwide where you'll find people of every age, ethnicity, occupation and skill or lack of it.

But what, really, does golf have to do with the outdoors? We see courses everywhere. Put together, they cover an area of the United States twice the size of Rhode Island. Are golf courses just more uncontrolled development and conspicuous consumption — imitation nature cooked up with chemicals? Or admirable, oxygen-generating green zones — forested parks by another name? Some courses nowadays boast belonging to bird sanctuary and wetlands conservation programs.

The Weed Golf Club looks like Teletubbieland, my young daughter says. Perfect, she means. It's a panorama from the palette of Heidi in Technicolor with the alpine meadow green of the fairways, purple lupine and golden poppies along the shining brook, and picture postcard vistas to Mt. Shasta and the snowy Siskiyou peaks.

I like to play alone in the soft evening twilight. The course can feel at that hour like some mountain wildlife park, a Shasta Serengeti. You'll see deer, quail and rabbits with a glimpse now and then of a weasel or fox slipping fast away into the brush. Once while searching for my ball in the tall, dry grass behind one green, I almost stepped on a big, ropy rattlesnake.

A bobcat was spotted several times last winter, reports Dixie Nehring, the friendly, no-nonsense woman who collects green fees, runs the grill and sells balls and hats at the little clubhouse.

I don't mean to suggest that playing golf at Weed or anywhere else is somehow a "natural" or "unspoiled" outdoors experience. Unlike more upscale private clubs, true enough, the Weed course has no glitzy fake waterfalls, high-tech turf grass or even sand traps. But the two maintenance men work hard mowing, watering and spraying the occasional dose of nitrogen fertilizer and weed-killer. A golf course is neither city nor wilderness. It's nature under tight control by human hands, a hybrid at once artificial and natural.

Golf, I think, reveals a certain ambivalence about the outdoors. Those of us who play want to get out in the fresh air away from the cramped office and the factory floor. But, very often, we don't want to venture too far from a cold beer, hot shower and life's other creature comforts. Golf lets you get away without really leaving civilization in the first place.

Those more rugged seekers among us, of course, want a pristine wilderness experience. In a way, however, the very idea of being away from it all may be an illusion at this point in human history.

I backpack sometimes in the Marble Mountains Wilderness area, 100 miles west of Mt. Shasta toward the Pacific Coast. As lovely as the Marble Mountains are, they are by no means "untouched." They are crisscrossed by hiking trails, the wispy trails of 727 passenger jets in the wide blue sky overhead, and cattle trampling the meadows and spreading giardiasis so you can't drink the water.

Nature is a matter of degree in our shrinking world. A golf course and a wilderness area mark points along a continuum of relative remoteness in these new times where no place is truly wild anymore.

Don't get me wrong. That we've done so much violence to nature makes protecting what we have left of it all the more urgent. We need more protected national forest and not shopping malls, strip mines or, for that matter, golf courses. And if you belong to that big band of people who find golf boring, stupid or worse, fair enough. It's true that the game has very often been linked to snobbery, exclusion and some very bad fashion decisions.

If you do happen to be one of America's more than 20 million golfers, then the Weed Golf Club remains a great anonymous treasure. Stop by this poor man's Pebble Beach on your way up to Seattle or Portland. If you don't have clubs, Dixie can rent you a Cold War vintage set for $5. A package of tees will cost an extra 50 cents.

"No Better Way to Spend a Day," proclaims a sign by the Weed Ladies' Golf Assn. at the sixth hole.

I couldn't agree more.

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I’ve always hated the Ryder Cup. Golf is not a team sport, and instead about the individual pleasure and challenge of doing one’s best. Although fun to play with friends, it’s just as well played alone. As a high schooler back in the 1970s, I remember an enormous delight at playing Berkeley’s Tilden Park course in the last golden light. You felt as if you had the big green forested expanse – and the very world itself--- all to yourself in a gorgeous, magical solitude. It was like being in a somewhat more open, California-lit version of Tolkien’s Lothlorien, or at least until the cold Bay Area fog came streaming over the hill in its enveloping grayness.

The Ryder Cup turns golf into low order theater of patriotic flag-waving and team sport nationalism. All the grandiose, media-driven hyperbole would make you think it mattered to our planet's future whether the Americans or Europeans brought home the cup.

Recall the 1993 Ryder Cup at Brookline. The United States was down to the Europeans on the eve of the final day of play. So Ben Crenshaw called in an old friend to deliver an inspirational pep talk: then-Texas governor George W. Bush. Bush talked to Tiger Woods and the others about the Alamo (an event, by the way, that doesn't look so noble when see from Mexico’s angle insofar as it was part of the seizure by the United States of what had one been Mexican land before the Mexican-American War of 1848). One can only imagine the soupy, testosterone-driven, win-one-for-the-Gipper, corporate-inspirational-speaker atmosphere and cliches from Bush at the closed-door meeting.

Think of it: the Ryder Cup and.... the Alamo. It’s as if there were some connection between a battle where hundreds died and contrived, television-driven golf match with the Americans garbed in those astonishingly tacky red-white-and-blue shirts designed by Julie Crenshaw, Ben’s wife. And yet everyone seemed to buy into this absurd macho cryptonationalist bravado, among them the beery fans yelling insults at the Europeans and chanting “Go USA” urging their team forward. When Justin Leonard sank his long winning putt, the U.S. team and wives made their infamous mad rush across the green, delirious with joy. You’d have thought that cancer had been cured or peace in the Middle East achieved.

The very strange idea that winning a golf tournament – or any sports championship – somehow possesses some greater, cosmic significance has become widespread these days. How, remind me, will our country be made better should our Ryder Cup team triumph? Will poverty lessen? War and torture end? The sky rain freedom and justice? This is another golf tournament, and golf remains, after all, just a game no matter that some of us find it good exercise and a mesmerizing treat to play.

But what about “pride”? That's a word heard a lot around the Ryder Cup. And what an empty, debased five-letter word it has so often become; it tends more than anything these days to be a meaningless, depoliticizing substitute for any kind of critical thinking – a buzzword in the era of now-president George W. Bush for uninformed rallying around the flag and the cause of America First no matter how ignorant and awful the things done in our country’s name.

Needless to say, it's wise to beware when people begin waving flags and talking about patriotism anywhere in the world. For all its more relatively benign forms, nationalism is more often than not a kind of anesthesia and alibi – anesthesia, in discouraging independent thought; alibi, in an excuse for horror committed in the name of the nation. Is it wrong to torture prisoners or hold them in secret detention centers without trial? To oppose measures against global-warming? Or to beef up corporate welfare and slash programs for the poor? No, let’s pledge allegiance to the flag, revel in our self-annointed rightehousness, and dismiss those who raise questions as weak and un-American. It's been a winning formula for George W. Bush, at least until recently

The hype around the Ryder Cup might be excused as in the grand tradition of sports excess and clichés. After all, sports announcers and the networks have always had to persuade us that whatever game they happened to be broadcasting was of momentous import. Otherwise, we might not tune in, or maybe, horrors, go out and play ourselves instead of sitting on the couch staring at the boob tube. My favorite announcers managed an epic solemnity leavened with the joke and smart ironic aside as if in winking awareness that the game is just a game after all. Lon Simmons, the Hall of Fame announcer of the S.F. Giants, was a great master of this.

The problem with the Ryder Cup is that the flag-waving and the rest is not innocent or devoid of its own creepy political import. As terrific a game as it is, golf has the poorest record of equality, opportunity, and inclusion of any major American sport. It wasn’t until 1961 – a full fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier – that the P.G.A. tour drop its “Caucasians-only” clause. And that only happened under heavy pressure from activists both black and white including former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis as well as Robinson himself (Louis called then-PGA commissioner Horton Smith an “American Hitler” in the New York Times).

To be sure, much has changed and it would be a simplistic political correctness to label golf today as a “racist” enterprise. But the sport today is fraught with an array of complex tensions and cleavages around race, gender and sexuality, the environment, and the gap between rich and poor. A recent article of mine in the South Atlantic Quarterly about Pinehurst explores some of these questions in more detail. For reasons I have also written about elsewhere, the PGA tour has become less as opposed to more integrated over time. Tiger Woods is the only African-American golfer on either the PGA or LPGA tour – and he himself describes himself as “Cablinasian”: part-white, part-black, part-Native American, and par-Asian. Like sports itself, golf mirrors society in its conflicts, passions, and divisions. It’s only sports announcers, the corporate PGA hierarchy, and the players themselves that would have us believe that there are not an array of fraught, interesting social issues surrounding golf. They avoid any exploration or, usually, even mention of these topics as if it they were some deadly new strain of the flu. Their loud silence measures the corporatized sports culture of the Michael Jordan “Republican-Buy-Tennis-Shoes-Too” era where stating controversial views is assumed to be commercial suicide.

I recall the 2004 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. The matter of race and money had been raised in the New York Times and by groups like the Cedar Grove Institute and UNC Center for Civil Rights in connection with the tournament, and especially the state of poor African American neighborhoods in the shadow of wealthy Pinehurst. The only mention in the coverage itself was an aw-shucks feature from Jimmy Roberts about a legendary old black Pinehurst caddy, Willie McCrae . You’d never have known from the story that blacks and Jews were banned from buying property in Pinehurst until the 1960s; that the Ku Klux Klan still operated in the area as late as the 1980s; or that the Pinehurst resort still looks like an old plantation many nights with its black maids and shoeshine boys and well-heeled white guests.

Bob Costas gave Roberts a small opening once the story had aired. “Did [Jim Crow] ever affect him,” he asked. “No, it never came up,” Roberts replied. And so was shut down any commentary about race, golf and discrimination, and the social history of Pinehurst for the duration of the dozens of hours of tournament coverage.

Journalist Bruce Selcraig commendably broke the virtual taboo about golf and politics in an article posted just before this Belfry Ryder Cup. He focused on the Bush-loving, America-first, evangelical Christian Republican politics so dominant in American professional golf and very much reflected in the Ryder Cup team. A recent Sports Illustrated survey gave a rare peek at the general political sensibilities of U.S. pro players. Eighty-eight percent of those surveyed supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq; ninety-one percent backed the controversial nomination of conservative justice Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. A piece in the same magazine two years before suggested that the David Duval and Billy Andrade were the only Democrats among the 125 tour players.

A wealth of other anecdotal evidence suggests that most other PGA tour players endorse the regulation conservative Republican package: anti-gay marriage, pro-death penalty, pro-corporate welfare, and on down the line. Fred Couples has said he never voted in the Clinton years. Several Republican Ryder Cup members threatened to boycott a 1993 White House visit in protest of new taxes on the rich. “I don’t know many liberals,” tour player John Cook once told journalist Selcraig. CBS announcer Jim Nantz is a Bush friend -- and a mainstay of Masters broadcasts that have studiously shut out any real exploration of the charged questions about race, gender, and the tournament's history.

U.S. team captain Tom Lehman may well be the nice man that many have made him out to be. And being dumb or even reactionary in your politics doesn’t make you a bad person. Yet Lehman -- and at least he is up front about it – has not hidden his very conservative politics. At the Texas Open some years back, Lehman described Clinton as “ a draft-dodging, baby killer.” In a recent book called The Way of the Eagle, Lehman says “God has definitely used golf in a great way over the last several years.” The sport, he adds, has become a “huge platform for golfers.” Lehman did not hesitate to use that platform at the Ryder Cup, at least in small ways. One photograph shows him with a black rubber bracelet stamped “W.W.J.D.” I can't say I'm religious, but I doubt that Jesus would be effectively authorizing torture of prisoners, or other policies of the president that PGA player so embrace in their combination of know-nothing patriotism and Republicans-Mean-Tax-Cuts-For-The-Rich pocketbook politics.

True enough, Lehman's places him in the company of a long line of athlete-activists who've sought to use their celebrity to larger ends. One thinks of a courageous, inspring, boundary-breaking lineage that includes Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Evonne Goolagong, John Carlos, Tom Waddell, Tommie Smith, Arthur Ashe, Cathy Freeman, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova. Lehman and other visible evangelical Christian Republican once and former athletes are in this same tradition of outspoken sports stars -- except that they are on the wrong side of history, social compassion, and anything like a workable vision for a better world. They stand for the struggle of, well, the wealthy, the intolerant, the white, the privileged, and the mainstream to ensure that no real inroads are made towards just and inclusive society.

Whatever happened to the figure of the leftist athlete (and here's to you, Carlos Delgado, a solitary sports progressive)? The only left-leaning celebrities you find nowadays are Hollywood or rock stars. It's not suprising in a way that sports would tend to generate conservatism. Sports, at least in their commonest 21st century American form, celebrate values of competition and individual achievement, numbers and number-crunching, and spoils-to-the winners that mesh with the 21st century capitalist status quo.

“I was 21 before I knew Manual Labor wasn’t a Mexican,” Lee Trevino once wonderfully quipped. But few players come from working-class backgrounds in these post-Tiger days of the mass-produced, swing-engineered, golf-from-the-cradle young professionals.

And, in fact, one reason for the politics of PGA tour players is surely the sheltered, country club backgrounds of so many of them. Nor, I suspect, are The Communist Manifesto and or many readings about feminism and global poverty on the reading list at the Ledbetter Academy high school. It would perhaps be wrong in any event to expect golfers to be deep thinkers given the regimented, all-consuming training demands of the game. The next Thoreau, de Beauvoir, or Fanon is not likely to be an American pro golfer.

It did strike me that there was a bit less enthusiasm than normal in the American media for the standardl patriotic story lines in this Ryder Cup. The ever-clear evidence of the lies, mismanagement, and cruelty in Bush's war on terror have made for a somewhat more chastened America, or at least so one would like to imagine. The story line of Darren Clarke returning after his wife's death from cancer -- and his solidarity with Tiger in the community of the recently bereaved -- was genuine and moving; and it was also very convenient. It allowed the center of gravity of the coverage to shift away some from the usual and yet now somewhat inconvenient nationalist story lines to play up the themes of sympathy and identification with Clarke and the Europeans. The mainstream media coverage turned down the bass line of golf patriotism a bit and adjusted up the knob of universal, internationalist human drama.

I have couch potato tendencies, I'll admit. And I watch PGA tournaments now and then, especially the majors, in spite of the taunts of non-golfing family and friends who believe watching golf on tv is the lowest, least understandable, and most boring of human pastimes. Aside from the politics, I like watching people so skilled at what they do, and, like everyone else, Tiger's charismatic genius. But I still just can’t stomach the Ryder Cup, and its all-too-successful attempt to hitch up golf to the bandwagon of cheesy team sport nationalism.

I’d love myself to see announcers and golf commentators at least now and then talk more about the fascinating, deeper social questions around golf. How many times can you say, “It looks like it’s a hole right” or “He’s got pitching wedge”? There’d still be plenty of time to talk about strategy and the game and it would make the sport more interesting to explore as opposed to suppress tough debates around them.

It won’t happen anytime soon.

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