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NYT Magazine Ethicist on Golf: Who? Whom?
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August 20, 2009, 09:03 PM
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The New York Times Magazine features a weekly column entitled "The Ethicist" in which Randy Cohen dispenses ethical judgments from a contemporary perspective — i.e., Who? Whom?

Is Golf Unethical?
By Randy Cohen

THE ISSUE

Last week in Berlin, the International Olympic Committee’s executive board voted to recommend that golf be included in the 2016 Games; the full membership will vote in October. In July, in Caracas, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez denounced golf as “a bourgeois sport,” and officials have taken steps to close two courses. The joys or miseries of playing the game aside, when it comes to assessing golf’s underlying ethos, who is more persuasive, Chávez or the I.O.C.?

THE ARGUMENT

While it would be oversimplifying either to uncritically exalt or utterly damn the culture of golf, on balance Chávez has the stronger case. The golf community, like most others, is neither monolithic nor immutable, but the current customs and values of big-time professional golfers, those most likely to dominate Olympic play, seem remote from the Olympic ideal.

Here’s how those golfers look from one international perspective, that of Bruce Selcraig, writing in The Irish Times during Ryder Cup week in 2006: “They drive the same luxury cars, have similar messy divorces, and whether they be from Denmark or Denver offer up the same golf clichés in a globalised TV-ready English that pleases their corporate sponsors.”

American golfers are even more homogeneous and more conservative than their global colleagues, Selcraig asserts, citing a Sports Illustrated survey of 76 P.G.A. tour players: 91 percent endorsed the confirmation of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.; 88 percent supported the invasion of Iraq; and 0 percent had seen “Brokeback Mountain.” Not science, perhaps, but not unrevealing.

As stated on an official Olympic Web site, “the goal of the Olympic Movement” — it is a movement, not just a gateway to a Wheaties box — “is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination … with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” The culture Selcraig describes is more redolent of a gated community than amiable international populism.

That culture was discreditably displayed in 2002, when protests arose over the Masters Tournament being held, as ever, at the Augusta National Golf Club, a private club without a single woman member.
Lamentably, few male golf stars joined the protest. Tiger Woods was conspicuously willing to play at a sexually segregated club (and one that did not accept a black member until 1990). He had no particular
duty to step up — no honorable person can play at a segregated club — but his inspiring personal history made his complacency especially sad. As of April, when the Masters again returned to Augusta, the club still had no women, a fact that should worry the golf-besotted I.O.C., which trumpets its determination “to enhance women’s participation in sport at all levels.”

Reactionary bastions like Augusta are not the whole story. Golf is also played on public courses — there are 16,000 nationwide — and some pros emerge from that modest terrain. New York City, for example, has 12 municipal courses. (Queens, with four, has the most. Manhattan has none, although I can envision a concrete course that begins with a tee at the Apollo and ends on a green near the stock exchange. It’ll keep pedestrians alert.) Yet golfers appear to be a less diverse group, and a group less interested in diversity, than, say, soccer players or runners. As Chávez put it: “There are sports and there are sports. Do you mean to tell me this is a people’s sport?” He answered his own question: “It is not.”

Although not explicitly mentioned by Chávez or the I.O.C., golf entails questionable environmental ethics. Unesco warns of the lamentable consequences of building golf courses to attract international tourists: “An average golf course in a tropical country such as Thailand needs 1500 kg. of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides per year and uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers.” Some courses have become more frugal with water, and a team of British scientists argues in “The Biologist” that “many golf courses actively promote nature conservation and harbour some of our rarest plant and animal species.” But it is hard to believe that the best-designed nature preserve includes 18 putting greens, or that even the most sophisticated golf course is better for the environment than no golf course at all. These considerations are putatively important to the Olympic Movement, which declares its intent “to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport.”

(While not strictly a matter of environmental ethics, as a kid playing pitch and putt in Charleston, S.C., I saw an alligator on the course — they’ve got plenty down there — adding excitement to an otherwise placid pursuit. If the I.O.C. does go with golf in 2016, I hope it will be a version that features large carnivores.)

Every big-time sport has its disheartening elements. College basketball, a game I love, is marred by periodic recruiting scandals; academic mischief; the strange behavior of the N.C.A.A., its governing body; and Rick Pitino’s love life. Perhaps the only moments of grace and beauty and virtue in any game occur during actual play, and we should not look too closely at its broader culture and implicit ethics without expecting to be dismayed. But there are genuine differences between the ethos of one sport and another. It is hard to imagine the Duke of Wellington declaring, “The Battle of Waterloo was won in the corporate hospitality tents of the P.G.A. tour.”

Now, you might think that what would actually be most interesting from an ethical perspective about golf is that it`s the most prominent sport in which players are required to referee themselves on the honor code. In 1984, I watched Arnold Palmer knock himself of contention on the next to last hole of the United States Senior Open by calling a penalty on himself that absolutely no one else saw or even could have seen. In sharp contrast, the culture of most other big time sports encourages players to cheat when the ref isn`t looking.

As for the ethics of college basketball ...

The ethical issue for golf is whether it wants to lower itself to the level of the Olympics. I like the Olympics a lot, but their ethical history is a lot dodgier than golf`s.

For example, the essence of the modern Olympics is that the stars of the show, the athletes, don`t get paid. That makes hosting an Olympics potentially quite lucrative, as LA showed in 1984 by turning a $300 million profit, which makes the bidding to be a host city an ethical nightmare as IOC members shakedown host cities for bribes.

In contrast, since the 19th Century, golf (being a Scottish game) had a perfectly reasonable solution for amateur/professional quandaries that bedeviled more aristocratic sporting enterprises such as tennis until 1968, the Olympics into the 1980s, and The Ethicist`s favorite, college basketball, today.

In golf, you could always choose to be either a professional or an amateur. It`s your choice. Everybody could compete in the Open tournaments but only amateurs could compete in Amateur tournaments. This system continues today: earlier this year, Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo won $60,000 in a celebrity tournament, but donated the money to charity to preserve his right to play in the U.S. Amateur.

In the past, attempts to get golf into the Olympics have foundered on the lack of enthusiasm of golf pros for playing without getting paid. Golf is apparently now going to be in the Olympics primarily because Tiger Woods wants to be an Olympian. He has everything else he`s ever wanted (except Jack Nicklaus`s career major championship record, and he`s fallen behind Roger Federer in major championships), so it`s perfectly reasonable for him to look forward to representing his country in the Olympics.

As for golf in the Olympics overall, well, it`s kind of silly. The Olympics are good for minor sports that aren`t widely interesting enough to hold public attention without the Olympics. Adding Tiger Woods to the Olympics is just going to distract from obscure athletes` single shots at momentary fame. Moreover, golf is not the kind of sport like the 100m dash that`s deterministic enough to make one gold medal every four years interesting. Too much luck is involved, even more than in, say, tennis. Thus, golf holds 16 major championships ever four years. Woods is by far the best golfer ever, but he`s lost 38 of the 52 major championships held since he turned pro. So, the idea of one gold medal in golf every four years is just ho-hum dumb.

Making the Olympics the global amateur golf championship makes a fair amount of sense, although not from a business standpoint since it would just be a low-key event like the Walker Cup. Of course, "The Ethicist" would blow a gasket because amateur golfers tend to be The Wrong Kind of People.