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Golf is just as messy-real as any other sport, and now everyone knows it

Tiger Woods, PGA Championship
Fred Vuich/SI
Woods acted anything but muted or predictable on the course.

There are many reasons why the Tiger Woods saga has expanded to fill so much airspace, such a galaxy of gawking, as if his next move really makes that much difference to anyone but him and his wife.

Perhaps the best, albeit overlooked explanation: The story blows a hole in the last layer of protective cellophane around the game, vaporizes what was left of golf's pedestal that kept it somehow above the fray and beyond reproach. Other sports wallowed in cocktail waitresses, Vicodin and mysterious moonlight car accidents, but surely not golf.

Of course the premise was ridiculous long before Woods came along. A European Tour veteran once told me with a wink, "To be a professional golfer you have to travel where you please, eat and drink what you want, and sleep with whomever you like."

Okay, then.

Suffice it to say, that credo isn't exactly unheard of on the PGA Tour, too, and Woods is a far cry from the first pro golfer to foul the nest. Some of his wilder predecessors freelanced in other ways.

Jimmy Demaret was an avowed party animal. Lee Trevino showed up slightly drunk for the last round of the 1968 PGA, having tried in vain to rehydrate himself — with Gatorade that was spiked with tequila — after several beers the previous night.

Others have no doubt cheated at golf itself.

But the old media mostly swallowed the whistle on such shenanigans, maintaining the happy illusion that golf was somehow different, more gentlemanly.

In fact it was just as messy-real as any other sport, and now everyone knows it. All that's left is for Davis Love III to accidentally discharge an unregistered firearm in a crowded nightclub.

It's been happening for a while now, this mainstreaming. Golf's elitist image began to show cracks with pop-culture touchstones like "Caddyshack" (1980), but bounced back with the Shoal Creek controversy (1990). Then Tiger came along and inspired a massive Nike ad campaign (1996) and a video game in his image (EA Sports, '98), and perceptions began to change in a more lasting way.

Woods looked nothing like what we expected from a golfer (old, white), and was anything but muted or predictable on the course. These were good things. He crossed over, to use the lingo, which combined with out-of-this-world talent and new media to make him the most famous athlete in the world. All of that explains, in part, how we arrived at the current searing drama that never seems to end.

But golf's transformation was partly bureaucracy in motion, as well.

The Tour began testing players for performance-enhancing drugs last summer, and announced last month that it had nabbed its first offender.

The sport won inclusion in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games, thanks in large part to the efforts of the PGA Tour's Ty Votaw.

Golf has come down from on high because there is money in it, long term. (The Olympics could potentially kick-start worldwide participation and generate cash for most everyone in the game, not just Woods.) It has joined the rest of the world because the powers that be recognized that the rest of the world had it right.

It's why golf has followed football's lead: The Tour condensed its schedule in 2007 in part because the country's most popular league, the NFL, has an enviably finite, clearly delineated season.

And it's why golf has aped auto racing: The Tour remade its end game to resemble Nascar's.

Every shot is now on TV, making the PGA Tour less mysterious and more transparent each day. And of course those shots can now be dissected and analyzed in a variety of cool ways on the Internet.

All of the above moves have helped golf shake its insular, imperious rep. Even Tiger's embarrassing missteps have helped, in their own sad, bizarre way.

Maybe they've helped most of all.

Separatists will insist the game is still different, better, cleaner, more like life itself, and so on. They will roll out calcified old chestnuts like, "Yes, but golf is the only sport where the players call penalties on themselves." Let's see: Roberto De Vicenzo signed an incorrect card, fans rolled a boulder out of Tiger's line, Ernie Els was gifted a ruling at the U.S. Open — few of the game's most memorable rulings involved a golfer calling a penalty on himself.

It happens, but it doesn't make golf unique. Tennis players call their own service faults. And why pretend self-sacrifice is limited to the country club sports? The assist (basketball, soccer, hockey, etc.) and the pancake block (football) are made of the same stuff.

For that matter why pretend that anything is limited to golf, or excluded from it? We've got sex, drugs and the Olympics. We've got video games, tell-all memoirs and US Weekly to make sure that no salacious detail slips through the cracks.

Golf is now brought to us in high definition, and it includes the lowest improprieties. We can no longer pretend that it isn't part of every wonderful, banal and cringe-worthy facet of the human experience, and if that seems like a tough pill to swallow, hold your nose and try to remember: It's good for us.

 

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