JOHN COCKAYNE: Golf’s merry-go-round in a Covid environment
Tales of the expected impact on some players, whirlwind rankings and some things that never change
As anticipated, the shutdown of the pro golf tours seems to have affected some players more than others. Both Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy have gone off the boil compared with their form before Covid-19.
However, Koepka’s third place at the WGC event might herald better things to come, especially with the PGA Championship this week. In contrast, golf’s new “incredible hulk” Bryson DeChambeau and Jon Rahm have come out firing on all cylinders — all 18 of them in DeChambeau’s case.
The merry-go-round with the now reopened world golf rankings continues as Rahm ascended to the top spot (after a somewhat disputed reopening), and this after his somewhat nervy finish in winning the Memorial Tournament.
Rahm’s final nine holes involved a succession of dropped shots, a spectacular chip-in at the treacherous par 3 16th hole, which he had missed to the left, and a retrospective penalty on the same hole. Rahm’s tenure was brief, as Justin Thomas has already replaced him at the top of the rankings.
The hiatus certainly gave Michael Thompson new impetus as he broke a streak of seven winless years on the PGA Tour with his two-shot victory at the recent 3M Open.
On the European Tour, Marc Warren of Scotland was fastest out of the blocks and broke a six-year winless streak at the Austrian Open. Perhaps for these players it is rather like us mere golfing mortals having a horror first nine holes on a Saturday morning and then stopping at the halfway house, where the break seems to rejuvenate mind and body and we are then able to put together a much better second nine.
Having no spectators continues to give all sports an eerie, ghostlike feel, as anyone who watched the recent FA Cup Final at an empty Wembley Stadium would agree.
Talking recently to Keith Waters, the European Tour’s COO, he pointed out that golf certainly has its challenges — meaning that playing events such as the Ryder Cup without spectators, which he said was the players’ decision in the end, made little sense, but that sports like soccer, especially in the lower tiers of the game, have even greater challenges.
Golf and soccer’s big revenue tickets are the TV rights, with the spectators adding the raucous fizz so essential to a Ryder Cup. Waters believes the lack of crowds, at levels where TV rights are of no benefit, could have a very profound impact on the wellbeing of clubs, which are reliant on people coming through the turnstiles each weekend to remain financially viable.
Social media continues to disappoint, especially through self-styled golf pundits bemoaning the “triviality” and/or “unfairness” of the penalty given to Rahm. Their problem seems to be that the ball moved “so little” before Rahm played the shot.
The rules, arcane though some may still seem, are to protect the interests of everyone. A memorable “trial by TV” took place many years ago involving Craig Stadler. The Walrus decided to protect his white trousers, when having to kneel down in playing a shot from a muddy area under some trees, by kneeling on his waterproof jacket. The breach was that by using his jacket he was “building a stance”.
Stadler took the penalty like a man and moved on. Oddly, if he had put on his waterproof trousers and then played the shot, there would have been no penalty.
I am sure that had Rahm realised his ball had moved he would have been the first to call the penalty. This would reflect the sportsmanlike conduct of most and the high regard that the overwhelming majority of players have for the game’s integrity and rules.
While on the subject of conduct, DeChambeau needs not to lose sight of who he is and the game he is playing. I say this because (and it could be a result of all the cups of coffee he took in bulking up) his edgy outbursts at a camera operator and over several rules decisions during recent events have no place in golf.
To return to Rahm’s penalty, rules need to be absolute. Therefore, a ball moving is just that and the amount of movement should be irrelevant. How slippery a slope these types of “allowances” might lead us on to can only be imagined.
“Well he only replaced his ball six inches nearer to the hole” or “he put down a lower score on only one hole on his scorecard” — I shudder to think where we might end up once these doors are opened, even if only a little. As the classic saying goes, rules are rules, so play to them or go play somewhere else.
As a closing thought, in all of this mess, some things never seem to change — like “rain stopped play” in the recent cricket Test match between England and the West Indies. In a way, seeing this online was quite cheering. It was as if one of sport’s most enduring phrases has proved to be both virus- and pandemic-proof.
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