Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Golf: Soap Opera or Sport?

By Brad Oremland

Phil Mickelson won the Masters this weekend, which raises the obvious question: is golf really a sport? Chances are, you have a fairly strong opinion on this matter. If you are a serious golfer or a fan of the game, you almost certainly believe — with great conviction — that golf is a sport. If you're a critical thinker, or a wiseass, there's a good chance you believe otherwise.

There is not a universal definition of sports, but I think a simple one that would be widely accepted is "athletic competition". Personally, I'd want to refine that, but it does immediately rule out poker, so that's a good start. Other activities, however, are on the border of "athletic" (how athletic is billiards, really?) or "competition" (for the last time, Dancing With the Stars is not a sport). Golf is obviously a competition, but how athletic is it?

In a way, golf is somewhat like baseball. In both sports, you swing a stick at a ball. In golf, you then walk to wherever you hit the ball. In baseball, you then run somewhere while someone else tries to catch the ball, then throws it at fast as he can to someone else, who is required to catch it. Also, the ball is moving 90 mph when you try to hit it. I'd say we're pretty fuzzy here, golf. That doesn't sound very athletic, but it at least resembles a sport.

The problem, for casual fans, is that we don't see much action. Casual fans aren't going to linger on PGA (or, heaven forbid, LPGA) coverage, so we just see what makes it onto SportsCenter or the front page of the newspaper. And what does make it onto the front page of the newspaper? It isn't Lefty's sweet swing, that's for sure. Let's briefly review the biggest golf stories of the last decade or so:

There was the controversy over Augusta National's refusal to admit women as members. Annika Sorenstam playing the Colonial. Mickelson's first victory in a major. Tiger Woods' marriage to Elin Nordegren. And the current Tiger scandal, which has probably received more coverage than all the others combined. Where's the coverage of actual athletic accomplishments? It takes a back seat to the circus. To the casual observer, this looks more like a soap opera than a sport.

Obviously, every sport has its share of scandals, and they're often big stories. But for every steroid bust or criminal accusation, there are a dozen headlines about the sport itself. We could do this for any sport, but for now let's look just at baseball, which has been rocked by a number of scandals in recent years. Wading through the botched 2002 All-Star Game and PED controversy and everything else, there's been great coverage: the Diamondbacks' dramatic World Series win in 2001, the retirement of Cal Ripken, Ichiro Suzuki's single-season record for hits, the first World Series wins in nearly a century for both the Red Sox and White Sox, the enormous accomplishments of Albert Pujols, even Barry Bonds hitting 73, before the record was tainted by the cream and the clear.

Is this a reflection on golf itself, or merely on the media that cover the game? Maybe golf has wonderfully compelling storylines that the media ignore in favor of the sensational. Unfortunately, the game's signature moment in recent years hasn't come on the course. No golfer, including Woods himself, has ever gotten more airtime on ESPN than during the current scandal. Even before this mess, viewers saw more face time for Woods in commercials than in competitions. The media treats golf as being about the personalities, not the putting.

So, is golf really a sport? Well, maybe so, but it's hard to tell through all the drama. And I don't have the patience to really immerse myself in the game and find out; I don't like soap operas. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, maybe even common sense, but I think the best thing for golf at this point would be for Tiger to go away. No sport can be healthy when it's so dependent on a single superstar, especially when he makes so much news in other arenas. Golf fans should be talking about golf, not text messages or tasteless ads or anything else. The focus is not on the game, and that makes it hard to take any sport seriously. Of course, the walking thing doesn't help. Maybe they could start running to the next hole?

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