Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Hail Golf's New King. Respect Its Old One.

By Shane Thomas

By the time you probably read this[1], the 40th Ryder Cup will be imminent, with Europe and the United States competing for the trophy which Europe retained in dramatic fashion two years ago at Medinah.
One of the key subplots of the competition has been the focus on Rory McIlroy. After a breathtaking end to the season, which resulted in the Northern Irishman winning The Open and the PGA Championship back-to-back, and regaining the World Number 1 ranking, McIlroy is likely to be singled out for special attention by the American team. Right now, McIlroy is the man, and America are looking to bring him down.

While it remains to be seen how long McIlroy's current golfing dominance will last, I for one am glad to see the Ulsterman as golf's premier player. Not just for parochial reasons, but one of the simple joys of sport is seeing the intangible smoke of potential solidify into discernible brilliance. McIlroy has carried the weight of expectancy since he was a teenager, and he appears to be the man to carry golf into the next decade.

However, while the plaudits aimed his way are welcome to see, what is not is how aspects of the praise has carried a dual purpose. A rather spiteful purpose. For some, it seems impossible to laud McIlroy, without also denigrating Tiger Woods.

There's no doubt that we appear to be witnessing a (involuntary) handover of power from Woods to McIlroy as the game's dominant force. That's the nature of sport - and often in many walks of life. But for some, reaction to this transition has come in the form of ignoble glee. Over the past few years, if I had an abacus to count the occasions I've read a piece praising McIlroy, which included a non sequitur sideswipe at Woods, I would have run out of beads by now.

That's not to say that Woods is beyond reproach. By all accounts, he can be a difficult man to deal with. There's validity in articles about this, when also appraising his spectacular success in golf. However, using Rory as a stick to beat Tiger is not only undignified, but is residual of something far worse.

Nice guy or otherwise, Tiger will always be a touchstone for his sport, that goes beyond the trophies he has won. He may not have fulfilled his father's prediction of doing "more than other man in history to change the course of humanity", but it should never be forgotten or overlooked that he achieved against the odds.

It's a sad, but ineluctable fact that golf has often functioned as a petri-dish of kyriarchy. To come from any group of people outside society's power structures, and succeed in golf is truly remarkable. One wonders if the golfing media had greater diversity beyond white men, this would be recognised more often.

Much like the Williams sisters in tennis, Tiger's success - nay, his sheer presence - in the game is miraculous. It's a pity that while Venus and Serena have had some influence on an increased number of black players in tennis, the same is yet to occur in golf[2].

While I don't think any of the golfing media are boiling inwardly with racist hatred, one wonders how much of a racial undertone there is in the seeming relief that the difficult black man has now gone from the top of golf's mountain, to be replaced by a gregarious, humble, white man[3].

For clarity's sake, this isn't to paint McIlroy, Woods, or even the media as hero or villain, This isn't a simplistic good guy and bad guy story. But unconscious bias can sometimes take place in the manner we perceive others, and sport is no different. It was present in the way many discussed the recent NBA Finals series between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs.

The media narrative would have you believe that Rory is the saviour golf has been waiting for, finally slaying the evil dragon that is Tiger, when we should be grateful for them both. But - through no fault of either man - Tiger's background ensured he had to overcome multiple barriers to achieve. Golf would do well to remember that. And then never to forget it.

[1] - People do read these posts, right?

[2] - For which Tiger should largely be blameless.

[3] - Both black men and women will have plenty of experience with the racialised nature of words like "difficult" and "humble".

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