Thursday, May 25, 2023

Prestwick, Scotland, and Being Dead Otherwise

“Death is death,” matter of factly says my friend, the anthropologist Anne Allison, when I share worries about aging, cancer, and the end of life’s crazy journey.

Her new book Being Dead Otherwise guides us through a Japan of corpse clean-up businesses, Buddhist prayer robots, and automated mausoleums. An aging, atomized country is inventing new modes of funerary care for what Allison call “the lonely dead” who may not have loved ones to see to their afterlife.

I was feeling morbid on a trip to Scotland a couple of weeks ago. Besides just getting older, as we living beings do, I’ve lost some strength after my cancer surgery, radiation, and testosterone-lowering injections. It has felt good lately to be doing undercover fieldwork in an Amazon warehouse for a new project on the e-commerce giant. Wrangling boxes onto trucks I’ve at least put back a little muscle, not to mention getting to feel like a working stiff except for all the trips to the bathroom to change my diaper.

You’ll find some golfers among Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of workers, or “Associates” as the company euphemizes us. My friend Barb, the champion pallet builder of Lane C, has a regular game with friends. She makes Black on Black gal pal trips where her group plays Black-owned golf courses around the country.

I had gone to Scotland for a conference about labor rights – and to get in some Scottish links golf. 

Traveling alone I’m sometimes prone to melancholy. The Glasgow gloom didn’t cheer my mood as I headed off to play the Western Gailes Club, only mildly guilty for shirking my conference duties.

My grumpiness didn’t last long. Being able to train everywhere is one of Europe’s delights, unlike our insane American car culture. A subway and then a commuter rail took me down to the Western Gailes Club along the Firth of Clyde with Ireland just a two hour a ferry away.

I loved everything about the round. The staff was welcoming as so often at Scottish courses. Their lovely, sometimes incomprehensible accents rank among the pleasures of playing golf in the sport’s home.

Freddy, the starter, was apologetic about having me play by myself. He compensated with a viewing of his starter shack collection of bag medallions from courses worldwide before fist bumping me away off the first tee.

I hit weakly at first, and about to give in once more to my self-pitying inner narrative about lost distance, lost manhood, and life’s decline. But the play of sun and cloud together with the sea breeze made it impossible not to take pleasure in the moment.

                                                                                                          Western Gailes 2023

Like the best links courses, Western Gailes lies easy along the sea. Remember those parachutes games from summer camp? How gently the sheer fabric would settle on the ground when the circle of kids lowered it? It’s as if the Western Gailes design floated down from the sky just like that.

You rarely feel that way about golf courses in the U.S.. Despite the Coore-Crenshaw naturalistic trendiness, the earth-mover still reigns supreme. My favorite old American course, Pine Needles, a classic Donald Ross, is the rare one with that same effortless way of being on the land.

I was reminded of the links influence on Mike Strantz, the maestro architect of Tobacco Road not far from my own hometown of Durham, North Carolina. “Every hole should be signature hole,” Strantz supposedly said. Among many memorable ones at Tobacco Road, his par-5 12th has fascinated, mystified and frustrated many a golfer.  The green sits in what’s effectively a hole between high, shaggy mounds, making for an uncomfortable blind shot.

Playing the par-5 6th at Western Gailes also means hitting blind to a green in a hole.  Strantz was a brilliantly creative artist of an architect, taken from us, at 50, far too young from mouth cancer. Yet he also borrowed heavily from the old seaside Irish and Scottish courses, in the case of Tobacco Road for a course constructed in an abandoned quarry in the middle of North Carolina.


                                                               The sixth hole at Western Gailes and the 12th at Tobacco Road

Is any sport more mind game than golf? The game is 99% mental – and the other 1% is mental too, somebody once said.

I was so happy at Western Gailes that I started to hit the ball with more authority, all the morbid melancholy swept away by the bright sea breeze. Over a Guiness in the clubhouse, I struck up a conversation with a fellow American, Randy “Tank” Tantlinger, and his friend Jeff, a retired firefighter. A former boxer, Tank looks the part with a delightful outsized personality to match.  He hosts a Pittsburgh Steelers radio talk show, and is a golf impresario with an entertaining youtube series called "Golfin' Around" and the CEO of a company called Victory Sports and Entertainment.

The Scots adored Tank, a one man traveling revue with a joke and big tip for everyone.  We had dinner and few drinks together at the nearby Dundonald Links, a lovely newer track with its own golf cabins. The kind Paul, a staffer there, drove me back to the train station afterwards – at no charge, in characteristic Scottish hospitality. 

Before heading home, I made a trip down to Prestwick, the birthplace of the Open Championship with a 19th century Old Tom Morris pedigree. It’s snow globe of a classic Scottish course, sealed in by the Prestwick airport, train tracks, a dune walking trail and its parking lot and club house. 

You see why Prestwick is no longer in the Open rotation despite its pedigree. There's no room for the crowds or the necessary lengthening for big-hitting 21st century pros. 

I was little put-off by the Downtown Abbey snobbism of the club. When I planted my tee on the first tee, the starter interrupted me. 

“I’m sorry, Sir,” he said, “But those are the Members Tees.” 

If Prestwick wants to charge visitors $300 a round (plus the unspeakably overpriced Peter Millar souvenir gear in the pro shop), it might consider losing the Upstairs Downstairss pretensions. 

The first hole is crazy interesting, short and bordered by stone wall like a miniature road hole.

Flustered at being relegated to the Regular tees, I yanked a terrible drive into the left gorse like a sorry novice. 

                                                                                           The first hole at Prestwick, 2023

It was still a treat to play Prestwick, and the staff generally friendly as elsewhere. Strangely for an old course, it has almost a miniature golf feel – short, blind shots, crazy undulations. I wouldn’t rave over it as some golf cognoscenti do, but it was lovely to be there no matter for the bad golf I played.

I’ve long thought golf has dimensions of a liminal space between life and death. Didn’t Bing Crosby die coming off the green at a course in Spain?  And aren't golf courses filled with us older people?  It's about time for me to transition from the stiff shafts of my stronger youth to the regular ones of a golfer weaker by the year.  Eventually, you can’t play at all anymore, just tune in to tournaments on tv. 

My grandmother liked nothing better than to watch Tiger Woods as she lay curled on her bed with dreadful osteoporosis.

I’m not quite there yet.  I’m heading next week to California – there to play one of my favorite courses anyway, the Weed Golf Course, that poor man’s Pebble Beach below Mt. Shasta. 

Fairways and greens.

Saturday, April 15, 2023


Orignally published in the Sun-Sentinel, October 4, 2022  

 Charles Schwartzel, Branden Grace and Hennie Du Plessis lift their trophies at the inaugural LIV event.

Between the new Saudi-funded LIV golf tour and the upcoming soccer World Cup in Qatar, sportswashing is having itself a global moment. 

Repressive regimes have long staged big sports events to launder their images. Adolf Hitler helped invent sportswashing, making the 1936 Berlin Olympics an advertisementfor Nazism’s supposed virtues. The stadiums sparkled, and the “No Jews” signs were temporarily removed. Many visitors left impressed by the Fuhrer’s Germany. 

Dictators ever since have recognized the payoff of sports sponsorship — whether Mobutu Sese Seko staging the 1974 “Rumble in Jungle” or Vladimir Putin hosting the 2018 World Cup.  

It would be nice to imagine that sportswashing no longer works in these ostensibly more enlightened times. Human rights organizations and concerned groups routinely express outrage at the latest announcement that some unsavory government will host the next Olympics, World Cup or other marquee event.

But the news cycle careens forward, the fuss dying down — and the Putins, the Mohammed bin Salmans, and the Xi Jinpings get to put on their shows. Who was it who said that, in the social media age, goldfish have a longer attention span than humans?

Consider the LIV Golf Series. At the end of this month, the new league will hold its season-ending tournament at the Trump Doral National course here in Florida — and former president Donald Trump will be there to greet the pros. Financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, LIV uses fat oil paychecks to entice players from the PGA tour to jump ship.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is overseeing this spending spree that also includes Formula One races and purchasing the Newcastle United soccer team.Between the macabre murder of human rights activist and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, bombing civilians in Yemen, and beheading dissidents, the crown prince needs all the image laundering he can buy. 

And bin Salman can buy plenty. The Public Investment Fund? A mere $620 billion dollars or so.  

At first, outrage about the LIV Golf Series was widespread. Weren’t golfers taking blood money? In an unguarded moment, Phil Mickelson, the best-known defector, admitted the Saudi sponsors were “scary motherf-----s.” It seemed as if the bad publicity might bring the LIV Golf Series down.  

Instead, LIV seems to be riding out the storm.

As its supporters note, the rival PGA Tour doesn’t exactly have a clean moral sheet —holding an annual tournament in China, which has sent more than a million Uyghurs to reeducation camps, among other tyrannical practices.

And, the LIV backers say, many Americans fill up with Saudi gas. Why should golfers be criticized for taking Saudi money? 

Somehow the essential creepiness of cashing checks from a murderous dictator has mostly dropped from the picture. More top players have joined LIV in recent weeks. 

The upcoming World Cup has followed the same pattern. Early in the stadium building,Qatar faced bad publicity for mistreating migrant workers. Erling Haaland, the young soccer sensation, led a protest of his Norwegian teammates against forced labor and dangerous work conditions. 

But once again, the outrage had a short half-life. No other national team has threatened to boycott the World Cup, although some players want to wear rainbow armbands in LGBTQ+ solidarity. Haaland and Norway have no leverage — they didn’t make the final round. One suspects that the great global carnival of the World Cup will go on with little unseemly protest [Note: and indeed it did, ]

It’s not that hosting big events necessarily changes opinions. Not many people regard China’s Xi Jinping as a great democrat, despite him presiding over two glitzy Olympics. 

But sports sponsorship does afford shady governments needed legitimacy. The LIV GolfSeries and its other sporting ventures have helped the Saudis to regain a place in the international community after the publicity catastrophe of the Khashoggi murder. 

Even President Joe Biden has now jetted to Riyadh to bump fists to Prince bin Salman.

It’s a sportswashing world after all.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Shame of Hank Haney

I took much pleasure in watching two of my former students compete in the U.S. Women’s Open last week.   Gina Kim took my big introductory anthropology class here at Duke University this past spring, and Yu Liu did a few years ago, and both women each once kindly played nine holes with me.  Being out on the course with world-class players was a great treat, although the two young stars from Duke's perennially elite team may not have anticipated how much time they would spend searching for my lost balls in the trees.
I thought about Gina and Yu when I heard about the comments of Tiger Woods’s former coach, Hank Haney, just before the U.S. Open.  In his regular appearance on the SiriusXM PGA Tour radio channel, Haney was asked about the tournament:
Host: “This week is the 74th U.S. Women’s Open, Hank.”
Haney: “Oh it is? I’m gonna predict a Korean.”
Host, laughing: “OK, that’s a pretty safe bet.”
Haney: “I couldn’t name you six players on the LPGA Tour. Maybe I could. Well … I’d go with Lee. If I didn’t have to name a first name, I’d get a bunch of them right.”
Host: “We’ve got six Lees.”
Haney: “Honestly, Michelle Wie is hurt. I don’t know that many. Where are they playing, by the way?”
In this “gotcha” society, it came as little surprise that USA Today and other media immediately reported Haney’s “racist and sexist comments.”  I’m not sure whether his would-be funny commentary rose exactly to that level, but it was depressingly unfunny in more ways than one. A supposed golf expert unaware that the U.S. Women’s Open was being played that weekend?  Or having no idea where the tournament would be held?  And couldn't name even six LPGA players?  This is exactly the kind of condescending trivialization of women’s sports that female athletes have been battling for decades.
It’s worth remembering golf’s unpleasant history of discrimination against women.  They were not admitted as members at many country clubs for decades, including Augusta National until 2012.  The  LPGA was the first women's professional sports league in the world, but it still struggles for sponsors and recognition.  The consensus best course in America, Pine Valley, remains men-only even now.   For that matter, there’s still some baked-in sexism in golf culture, the leering at the cart girl and the grill room jokes.   It’s demoralizing that a golf influencer like Haney would make a know-nothing bro culture joke of his lack of knowledge about the women’s game.   
And then there’s the matter of race, ethnicity, and the habits of stereotyping.  We know about golf’s many decades of exclusion and discrimination against African-Americans, including the so-called “Caucasians-only” clause on the PGA tour until 1961.  The old-fashioned racist tropes fixed Asians as swarming Yellow Peril hordes, and, more recently, the stereotypes have been updated to a picture of high-achieving yet robotic, sexless, and uninteresting people.  When Haney professes not to know the names of more than few players on tour (and to joke about so many named Lee), he propagates exactly this idea of Asians as a generic mass impossible to distinguish between.  The irony is that the men’s tour is no hotbed of diversity and individualism.  It’s dominated by whites from affluent backgrounds with the same cookie-cutter swings and bland personalities.  By any measure, the LPGA is the more diverse of the two tours with more countries represented in the top 100 than the American-heavy PGA tour. The legendary Duke University women’s golf coach, Dan Brooks, has led his team to seven national championships precisely by recruiting internationally.   His squads are a United Nations of women’s golf with recent standouts from Italy, Israel, France, Ireland, and Thailand.
Related image
Gina Kim
Related image
Yu Liu
Let me return to Gina Kim and Yu Liu.  As their backgrounds underline, the whole idea of “Asian” golfers is a lazy shorthand.  Gina is of Korean descent and Yu is Chinese, and, in fact, there are top female players from an array vastly different Asian countries – South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and China.  The very term “Korean” is complex, since it includes women born and raised in countries including New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.  Like LPGA star Michelle Wie (who went on social media to call Haney to account), Gina Kim has Korean parents, but is American, having grown up here.  Her parents are both professors of Spanish at Duke’s great rival, UNC, making her the rare professional golfer with academics for parents.  Yu is among the pioneering female Chinese golfers in a country where Mao banned golf for decades (and instead promoted the more ostensibly democratic sport of table tennis.)   Their stories deserve far better than the know-nothing prejudice about there being “too many Asians” still visible in perceptions of the women’s golf today.
I was glad to see Tiger Woods, who often shies from social controversy, weigh on the Haney controversy.  When SiruxXM announced it was suspending Haney for his comments, Woods tweeted that his former coach had “gotten what he deserved.”  Woods is part-Asian himself with a Thai mother, after all, not to mention with little love lost for Haney for cashing in on their years together with an unflattering tell-all book.  After at first apologizing, Haney has pulled a Trump – doubling down on his original stupid comments with no contrition.  The victory of a South Korean women showed he had been right all along, Haney claimed.  “I knew a Lee would win,” he tweeted.  The point had never been who would win, but rather Haney’s expressed disinterest in the women’s game and generic lumping together of Asian players as “a bunch of Lees.”  He just doesn’t get it.
This didn’t stop Gina Kim and Yu Liu from having fine tournaments.  Gina’s opening day 66 tied the U.S Women’s Open record for low round by an amateur, and she finished 12th. Yu placed fifth after tying for the lead at one point.  I remember suggesting to Yu that she finish her Duke degree before going pro, but she left after her first year.  It’s clear enough that she had reason for that decision given she’s almost earned a million dollars on tour while I still make my modest professor’s salary.   
It’s easy to forget that women were almost completely barred from playing sports at all little more than a century ago.  The “fair sex” was too delicate to sweat went the nostrums of Victorian porcelain doll feminity; their uteruses might even fall out if they exerted themselves too hard. We are happily far beyond those days even if there remains a long way to go.

I hit an especially good drive for me when I played my nine with Gina and a couple of members of the men’s golf team, about 260 yards down the middle.  “Good shot,” Gina said, before stepping up to launch her drive far past mine into the blue sky.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Transubstantiation of Tiger Woods

It was an amazing moment in America sports history yesterday.  Tiger Woods won the Masters Tournament, one of golf’s four major championships, capping a remarkable comeback from deep troubles on and off the course.  Most pundits had written off the great champion after an ugly divorce, four back surgeries, and, less than two years ago, an arrest for driving under the influence of pain-killers.  His vacant mug shot eyes were those of a man who seemed to have lost his way altogether.

That Woods would rise again felt almost foreordained and even biblical in its way.  He’d once been acclaimed as golf’s black messiah, redeeming the sport from its whites-only past, and becoming its greatest player with an astonishing knack for drama and the clutch shot.  Then, after self-destructive serial cheating destroyed his marriage, Woods was crucified to the cross of public opinion and media frenzy.   He resurrected his career with a public apology and double fusion back operation.   Now, with his Masters win, Woods has been transubstantiated, rising into celestial new heights of fan adoration at least among the golfing public.  At 43, balding, having sinned and suffered so much, Woods is more human than he had been as a invincible young superstar.   His powers of concentration and genius skill remain altogether otherworldly beyond the imagination of us mortal weekend players.

I could not help shedding a few tears as Woods raised his arms in triumph on the 18th green yesterday.  Anyone of a certain age who has learned how hard life can be could identify with his struggle and take pleasure in his victory. There is always new drama in the Woods story, and perhaps he will now go on to reach his childhood goal of overtaking Jack Nicklaus for the most major tournament titles.  It felt yesterday, as the thunderstorms rolled across Georgia, that this Masters victory will remain as the greatest moment of all in his extraordinary story.