In July 1985, Steve Elkington played in his first tournament as a professional, the Dutch Open. He had the swing from God. I happened to latch on as his inept caddie. We were both in our 20s, fully formed and unformed. Elk played with Bernhard Langer and Graham Marsh, got into a minor rules tussle, played his tail off, and almost contended. He was starting to be then what he is now. Smart, and a smart-ass. Artistic, in a macho sort of way. An Outback Aussie by way of Houston golf and Texas oil money. Had the game never moved off balata and persimmon, he might have had a Hall of Fame career. Being allergic to grass didn’t help. He is also allergic to convention.
Twitter’s been perfect for him, and I suspect the more annoyed you are at him the happier he is. He doesn’t need people to like him. Bubba Watson will tell you that. Other playing partners will, too. Jackie Burke, the owner of Champions in Houston and a freethinker himself, has been sharing his accumulated wisdom with Elkington for decades now. They both have that thing where they’ve got it figured out and they’re not afraid to tell you. They make the world more interesting.
My own view (not that you’re asking) is that Michael Sam is doing a brave and necessary thing. The depth of our homophobia is staggering, and he’ll likely make the world a more tolerant place, and when the next gay NFL player comes along, or comes out, nobody will really care. Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number. Hollywood is not making movies about Larry Doby. (Baseball’s second black player.)
I think what Elkington is trying to say, crudely and regrettably, is that he wishes we were already at the Doby stage. At least, that’s what his follow-up tweet suggests. (“I'm for Sam I'm against ESPN telling me he's gay….”) It doesn’t really explain the first one. (“ESPN reporting Michael Sam is leading the handbag throw at NFL combine…No one else expected to throw today.”) But that one’s useful, too. It reminds us that crude stereotypes are still all around us, even as we dream of society where, in the true American way, you can do your thing as long as you are not intruding on my ability to do my thing. Handbag-tossing. Michael Sam could throw Steve Elkington farther than Steve Elkington could throw his old-school visor.
His latest one (for now) on the subject is again a howler with a measure of truth to it: “It goes back to "a ball hit an oriental spectator”. There's no oriental spectators..There just spectators." First of all, if you’re going to use Oriental — and who does anymore? — you would go big on the first letter. Even on Twitter and the death of grammar, the sentence is torture. But his underlying point is the same one Tom Watson made with me with far more elegance a couple weeks ago. I asked him about Michael Sam. I immediately had the feeling that Watson knew Michael Sam the football player. “He’s a wonderful football player,” Watson said. “His sexual orientation shouldn’t matter to anybody.” I tried to follow-up with Watson by asking what advice he would have for a player who was thinking of coming out. “I’m not going to go there,” Watson said. Watson was being polite and answering my questions. He wasn’t looking for attention. Just the opposite.
It would be absurdly easy to just say that Steve Elkington should shut up and go back to his cave. Many are saying exactly that. I couldn’t disagree more. That first handbag tweet, it’s crude. It’s stupid. It’s not funny. But it’s useful, because it reminds us again of what’s out there. And because it reminds us again that one of our most fundamental rights is to, on occasion, make an ass of ourselves by abusing our rights to free speech. I’m going to keep reading Steve Elk. He’s better than this sorry mini episode.