Sergio Garcia played the fried-chicken card in his spat with Tiger Woods, which is never a good idea. Sergio, listen: You don't bring up fried chicken in a spat with a man who has dark skin. For future reference, don't mention watermelon, either. Also, while we're at it, remember the First Rule of Using Hitler To Make a Point, which is: Never use Hitler to make a point. You're welcome.
The Tiger-Sergio spat is silly, but it also reveals a lot about the two men involved. And no, I don't mean that we have learned that Sergio is a racist.
He is a whiner (he just admitted this to Golf.com), and he is petty, and he thinks every dark cloud in the sky is staring at him. He loses his poise because he worries about the wrong things. And evidently he needs to improve his joke repertoire. But that doesn't necessarily make him racist.
Woods, meanwhile, is a champion, one of the greatest competitors his sport has seen, and nothing gets in the way of that. He is also disdainful of Garcia. There is a reason the two men don't get along. They have completely different personalities.
This recent blow-up started in the third round at The Players Championship, when Garcia accused Woods of pulling a club out of his bag prematurely, getting the crowd excited when Garcia was in the middle of his backswing.
There are several problems with Garcia's story, starting with this: Garcia was not in the middle of his backswing. Television replays showed he was standing over the ball. He could have stepped away. But something gets to Garcia when he addresses the ball. He had the biggest waggle problem in golf history a decade ago — he would waggle the club over the ball so many times before he hit that at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, fans actually counted for him.
So at the Players he hit anyway. The shot went way right. And this is when Sergio really out-Sergio-ed himself.
First, he blamed Woods for his own errant shot. Then he said the shot messed up his round, even though it was the second hole. Champions understand that lousy shots and bad breaks are part of golf. The key is not avoiding them, but overcoming them.
That is the biggest difference between Woods and Garcia. Look at what happened at this year's Masters. Garcia shot 66 in the opening round, then said, "Sometimes it comes out better than others, but today it was one of those good days. And you know, let's enjoy it while it lasts." He expected doom and he got it.
Woods, meanwhile, lost four shots on one great swing at Augusta. On the 15th hole of the second round, his approach shot hit the pin and went in the water, and then he got a two-stroke penalty for an illegal drop. Put aside the controversy about the drop for a moment. Woods shot 4-under par over the last two days and finished in a tie for fourth. He didn't win, but he competed.
Now, back to the Players. Garcia started talking about Tiger after the round: "He's not my favorite guy to play with. He's not the nicest guy on tour."
Nice? In a competitive round, what does nice have to do with anything? Was Michael Jordan nice? Is Kobe Bryant nice? Arnold Palmer is known as one of the nicest men alive, but he has said many times in the last 30 years that in the arena, modern-day players are too nice too each other.
This is sports competition at the highest level. Nice was never the goal for Tiger Woods. He did not set out to be the nicest golfer he could be. He wanted to be the best.
The Players Championship was over when Garcia griped about Tiger's so-called gamesmanship; the players just had to finish it. Predictably, Woods won. Predictably, in the final round Sergio put two shots in the water surrounding the island green on the 17th hole. When you make one excuse after another, pressure gets to you.
In August of 1999, Woods and Garcia dueled in the PGA Championship at Medinah. Woods was 23, Garcia was 19, and they seemed close to equals. Woods won that major, and he has won 12 more since. Garcia has never won one. Why? You can start with the excuses.
A few years ago, Woods might have bristled at every question about Garcia. Tiger is more comfortable with the public aspect of his life now. He doesn't worry about every little thing he says. That's why, at the Players, he explained his side of the mini-controversy and said of Garcia: "It's not real surprising that he's complaining about something."
That is why he disdains Garcia. Woods revels in the difficult shots, the impossible lies, the low-bending draws under the trees and into the green. His creative mind embraces those moments. Garcia? He complains that the golf gods messed up his previous shot.
Woods moved on; he won the tournament, and that is the victory he wanted. Garcia couldn't move on. He takes things too personally. He wants people to see that he is nicer than Tiger Woods. And that is why, at the European Tour Awards dinner, he joked that he will make up with Woods, then went into racist-joke territory:
"We'll have him 'round every night. We will serve fried chicken."
This doesn't mean he is racist. Saying people of a certain race are dumber or genetically inclined to steal your car or loot your 401k — that means you are racist.
This was probably Garcia going for a laugh, seeking a bit of approval in the moment. It was the kind of joke you might make with a close friend of a different race, to make fun of stereotypes. But obviously, Garcia and Woods are not close friends. They are not friends at all. And Garcia never should have made the comment.
Garcia followed with a non-apology apology, one of those I'm-sorry-if-I-offended-anybody deals. Even after making a racist joke, he seemed incapable of blaming himself. He followed that up with a real, full-throated apology, and I hope people accept it. A man's reputation should not be destroyed by a joke, even this one.
Woods responded quickly on Twitter, quicker than he would have a few years ago, when every public interaction seemed to be vetted by a group of advisors. In a series of tweets, he wrote: "The comment that was made wasn't silly. It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate… I'm confident that there is real regret that the remark was made. The Players ended nearly two weeks ago and it's long past time to move on and talk about golf."
In other words: Sergio was wrong, he knows he was wrong, and I can't wait to tee it up and kick his butt next time. Sergio Garcia tried to win the spat, and he lost. Tiger Woods tries to win golf tournaments, and he does.