Lydia Ko

 Lydia Ko (Thanks to Wikipedia)

Lydia Ko
(Thanks to Wikipedia)

You have probably never heard of her even though she’s the best golfer in the world, male or female; yet we never hear about her exploits.  In fact, as we are told,

On 2 February 2015, [Lydia] became the youngest player of either gender to ever be ranked No. 1 in professional golf by both the Official World Golf Ranking and the Rolex World Golf Ranking at age 17 years, 9 months and 9 days, eclipsing Tiger Woods who was 21 years, 5 months and 15 days when he became men’s world number one in 1997 and Jiyai Shin who was 22 years and 5 days when she became women’s world number one in 2010.

And yet, again, despite the fact that she has won more times than Tiger Woods did at her age you have probably never heard of her. She seldom gets attention on the large stage of ESPN while every time Tiger Woods stubs his toe it gets headlines. When Charlie Rymer — a former PGA golfer and now a commentator on the Golf Channel — was asked why Lydia wasn’t better known, he hemmed and hawed (as is his habit) and totally failed to answer the question — which is simple: she is a woman. Moreover, she is not American. No matter how gifted she is, and she is regarded by those in the know as the most gifted golfer currently playing the game, she will be widely ignored, not only for the reasons given, but also because she isn’t brash enough. She doesn’t howl  like a wolf and pump her fist when she sinks a putt — as Tiger used to do — or pout when she has a bad day. She lifts her chin and walks to the next tee box and prepares to play. She is a delight, but she doesn’t “sell” to an American audience that wants its athletes to emote loudly and graphically and, if possible, show their vulnerability.

There are a number of factors involved in what might be called the “Ko phenomenon.” I have mentioned the obvious, but there is also the distinct possibility that race plays a part. After all, Ko is a New Zealander of Korean extraction who doesn’t look like the girl next door. And she plays a woman’s game. Even the Golf Channel, which is devoted solely to golf, broadcasts very few hours of women’s golf in a day. It is usually after the main PGA event of the day and is usually cut off for (wait for it) REPLAYS of the men’s event during the prime viewing hours. The major networks seldom bother with any but the major events, which are few in number.  As I said, ESPN seldom even mentions her name and even Sports Illustrated tends to bury her achievements deep in its pages, usually as an afterthought — if they bother to mention her at all.

As one who coached both men’s and women’s tennis for years, I can attest to the bias that exists in this country against women’s sports. In some cases, such as basketball for example, there is a marked difference in ability between the men who play for pay and the women who imitate them as much as possible both in apparel and type of play. Perhaps because of the different skill levels the audience for women’s basketball is meager at best and the women’s professional league struggles to keep its financial head above water. But in tennis and golf, the athletic gap is not that great. Though they don’t hit the ball as hard or as far, women play an exciting brand of both tennis and golf and while women’s tennis at the highest levels gets some semblance of the respect it deserves — and even gets equal pay in the main events —  women’s golf, where the players are exciting to watch and every bit as good as the men, is largely ignored. And, like the women’s soccer team, their remuneration is something of a joke when compared with that of the men.

When one seeks for causes of this phenomenon one comes up with the types of reasons I have given above. But, in the end, the habit of the media to ignore athletes like Lydia Ko may be the reason so few have heard of her. That is to say, the entertainment industry hasn’t yet figured out how to market young women who play a game at the highest level but who seem happy and well-adjusted (they smile, can you imagine?) and not given to histrionics. The entertainment industry wants sensational, viewer-grabbing moments, preferably with tears and perhaps even violence, if possible. Golf generally fails, though the men have found a way to make it more interesting by looking more intense (they seldom smile) and waiving their fists at every opportunity. Not the women. And that seems to be the heart of the problem.

Trumping Donald

Conservative writer George Will is having it out with Billionaire Donald Trump so keep your head down! The verbal fisticuffs and name-calling have already started to fly. On ABC News, George Will wondered aloud why on earth Mitt Romney would want Trump’s endorsement, saying, in part,

I do not understand the cost benefit here,” . . .. “The costs are clear. The benefit — what voter is going to vote for him because he is seen with Donald Trump? The cost of appearing with this bloviating ignoramus is obvious, it seems to me. Donald Trump is redundant evidence that if your net worth is high enough, your IQ can be very low and you can still intrude into American politics.”

Trump then tweeted back, calling Will “dumb.” I recall higher-level verbal abuse on the playground as a kid — though none of my friends ever used a word like “bloviating.” Come to think of it, none of my adult friends have ever used that word, either. In fact, I had to look it up: it means Trump is a bit of a wind bag, so there! Take that, Donald! But George Will is a wordsmith, and Donald Trump is. . . well, Donald Trump: pretty much what is wrong with this country — a self-absorbed, short-sighted, greedy, raper of the earth, who enjoys manipulating other people.

I don’t read George Will regularly, though I maintain a high opinion of him because of his pointing out early on in the Iraq war that if Weapons of Mass Destruction were never found there would be no possible moral grounds for that war. I agreed with him at the time and thought it a courageous thing to say, given his conservative credentials. “W” was at the height of his popularity at the time. Mr. Will would seem to have integrity, though I admit I never heard him mention W.M.D. again after it was clear to the world that there never were such things in Iraq. It might have been appropriate for him to ask aloud why on earth we invaded that country in the first place. But we have to take what crumbs we can get from the tables of the great and not-so-great.

Trump, on the other hand, has never struck me as much more than a tiny man with a smirk and a large idea of himself under a mass of hair that always seems about to take off. The man still insists that Obama is not an American citizen, for Pete’s sake! How can anyone take him seriously? He is now involved in the golf game on a grand scale, building expensive golf courses around the world (all with his name attached of course), appearing on the Golf Channel with some regularity and on national TV as well, promoting himself as usual and sticking in my craw. But I can always turn off the TV when he appears, as I learned long ago. In any event, you have to marvel at his way with words. In the “debate” with Will, Trump jumped on Twitter to lash out against Will, writing that “George Will may be the dumbest (and most overrated) political commentator of all time. If the Republicans listen to him, they will lose.”

What we have here is a flyweight flailing away at a light-heavyweight. My money is on George Will in this fight, and on Obama in November — no matter who does or does not endorse Romney.

Rules Or No Rules?

The issue of slow play in golf raises an interesting philosophical question. Really. A recent article in USA Today  informs us that the issue is not new and is getting worse.

That’s the general consensus as the pace of play has reared its unhurried head in the last two weeks. In the PGA Tour‘s showcase event, the May 10-13 Players Championship, Kevin Na caused a slow burn for fans around the world as he took hundreds of waggles and regularly backed off shots. He even purposely whiffed so he could start over as he struggled with inner demons that wouldn’t allow him to get comfortable.

Last week, Morgan Pressel was assessed a slow-play penalty that cost her a hole in a semifinal bout with Azahara Munoz in the Sybase Match Play Championship, turning a commanding 3-up lead with six holes to play into a 1-up advantage she eventually lost.

It is true that watching golf on TV (I have never attended a tournament myself) is like watching grass grow — in a drought. And the average golfer is mimicking the pros not only in dress but also in behavior, causing slow play on the nation’s golf courses.  If I thought that the professionals were taking extra time over their ball to ponder the moral implications of playing a game for millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements while so many of their fellow citizens live in poverty, I would not complain so loudly. But I somehow doubt that this is the case. Nonetheless, while hardly a major issue, slow play is an interesting one.

I say that because sports are one of the few places in our society where rules still apply and when people openly flaunt the rules of golf, in this case, it is somewhat disquieting. After all, there are rules governing pace of play in golf and players at the professional level have been “put on the clock” more than once. But seldom, especially in the men’s game, have any penalties been levied — not even financial penalties even though the players are making millions of dollars.

On the women’s side, the rules were recently enforced against Morgan Pressel, as the article mentions. And it created a flurry of discussion on Golf Channel later on — for several hours. Should she have been penalized, given the fact that she had been warned twice about her pace of play and didn’t show any signs of quickening her pace? Those who defend her talked about the money she stood to lose by, in effect, being ruled out of the match-play tournament. But this is irrelevant — even though Tiger Woods used the same argument to insist that something should be done in the men’s game, but not anything that will cost anyone money. Dismissing stroke penalties, Woods said, “Strokes (cost) money. People don’t realize how valuable one shot out here is.” Really now, have we come to this? Is prize money the sole consideration here? It seems clear that when a rule is broken and warnings have been delivered, a penalty should be enforced — and it should be a stiff penalty. If not money in the form of a fine (which many of these players could pay with the small change in their pockets) then taking strokes away from them, which will indeed cost the players both large sums of money and quite possibly the prestige of winning.

I applaud the LPGA in their attempt to move the game along by enforcing reasonable rules. And I fault the PGA for mouthing platitudes and refusing to apply the same rules against the men who can take five or six hours to play 18 holes of golf these days. Not only does it make for boring TV — which one can always turn off — but it does lead to imitation by amateurs. But, above all else, it is a rule. And in sports rules should be enforced or they aren’t worth the paper they are written on. The lack of enforcement of rules reduces the value of sports in our culture to the level of simply another business endeavor where rules are broken every day in the name of larger profits. But, then, perhaps that is where we have arrived.

Proverbs and Quotes

David Faherty recently quoted a “famous Spanish proverb” after interviewing Sergio Garcia on the Golf Channel. The proverb says, “A wise man changes his mind. A fool never.” This put me in mind of the fact that the American public strongly dislikes politicians who change their minds. What does this say about the American public? That question in turn put me in mind of Walter Cronkite’s famous line, “We are not well educated enough to perform the act of selecting our leaders.” Walter may be right.

I recall when George McGovern ran for president and had the audacity to drop Thomas Eagleton from the ticket because he learned that the man was an alcoholic — something he should have known beforehand. But the political talking heads insisted that the fact that McGovern changed his mind was the kiss of death and, of course, he was roundly defeated in the following presidential election. This is not an isolated example; it is quite common. What does this say about us?

It says, if the Spanish are right, that McGovern was wise to change his mind, but (by implication) we are not. It would make sense to applaud a man who changes his mind when he discovers he has made a mistake rather than push ahead even though his course is headed dead-on for disaster — like the course George W. Bush pursued in Iraq, for example. I recall a friend saying she admired the Shrub because he “stuck by his guns no matter what.” Eh? No matter what? The man was dead wrong! He should have admitted his mistake and altered course. But at the cost of millions of dollars and countless American lives he didn’t and yet while his popularity rating dropped toward the end of his term, not long after leaving office it was back up to nearly 50%. Apparently a sizable portion of the voters in this country will forgive and support a politician who lies to them and undertakes a costly war against another sovereign nation without sufficient reason. But they can’t forgive and support one who changes his mind! This is worrisome indeed.

In their wisdom, the founding fathers restricted voting to those few who (a) were males, and (b) who owned property. And the popular vote was not to count in Presidential elections. In any event, the first requirement (a) has been shown to be wrong-headed, and the second (b) was probably misguided as well. But the urge here was sound: restrict the vote to those who know what the hell they are doing, or at least have a vested interest in the outcome! I once suggested to Robert Hutchins that the current American system was flawed in precisely this respect: we no longer have any requirements whatever for voting except accidents of birth and age. And age proves nothing, nor does the fact that we happened to have been born here. At the very least, we should require a coarse in civics. Naturalized citizens have to know more than those of us born in this country. Every voter should know for example, how many Senators each state has, whereas, in fact, many who vote have no idea whatever. (“Rhode Island has two? And it’s so small!” — actual response to a poll not long ago.)

We no longer require civics in our schools (or much else for that matter). Nor do we require courses in history of a population that is notoriously ignorant of history. Yet we allow citizens to vote for the people who will make the most important decisions in their country that affect them directly. This is not wise. Not only do voters seem to prefer to vote for those who “stick the course” no matter what. They also seem to prefer those who are glib and make a good impression on TV,  comb their hair the way we like, or have the prettiest wives or husbands. Our standards are low and our knowledge of what it takes to make a successful politician, much less a statesman, is practically nil. Our forefathers must be rolling over in their graves.

Yesterday’s News

Despite Tiger Woods’ most recent meltdown at the Pro-Am tournament in Pebble Beach, where he failed to make up a mere four shots to two unknown golfers, the media haven’t figured out that the man is yesterday’s news. In the interview after the tournament, Tiger bemoaned his poor putting and, once again, failed to give credit to the man who leap-frogged over him and the two men above him to come from six strokes behind to win the tournament — Phil Mickelson, who doesn’t seem to be caught up in the Tiger mystique. But Tiger’s name continues to draw interest and followers by the thousands and when he shows up at a golf tournament the TV producers drool because it translates into large numbers and makes the sponsors happy. But the man has had his day.

When Woods fails to deliver, as he has done repeatedly since his much-publicized breakup with his wife — resulting in world-wide tabloid exposure and the inevitable whispering behind the hand upon his appearance in a room — there is considerable talk about his putting, or his stroke, or his caddy, or his equipment. But none of these things will explain the fall from great heights that describe this man’s golfing career. His ego lies in tatters beneath his feet; he will need help putting it together again. His problem lies between his ears and no one seems to want to talk about that.

I am not a trained psychologist, but common sense tells me that a man who has been told all his life that he can do no wrong, that he can walk on water, and who seems to be doing precisely that every time he strides down a golf course in his red shirt on Sunday, when such a man suddenly and rudely runs head-on into the reality that he is none of these things, his psyche must be severely damaged. When his psyche takes such a thorough thrashing, no adjustment in his golf swing can possibly rebuild the self-concept that has taken more than thirty years and repeated success to build up. The man no longer believes in his own invincibility. He is learning what happens to a man when he begins to realize that he is not larger than life.

The Greeks learned over the years by trial and error that hubris leads inevitably to punishment. Buddhist philosophy likes to talk about karma and it is more or less the same idea, present punishment for past wrongs. When we begin to think we are gods, we will undoubtedly learn that we have feet of clay. Tiger Woods is learning that lesson and until or unless he takes steps to remedy the damage to his psyche, there will be no more major victories on the PGA circuit, I predict. There may be small wins, but the big ones will elude him as long as the ghosts of his past mistakes continue to whisper in his ear as he leans over the three-foot putt. The man’s problems are not mechanical, they are psychological. Even I can see that from where I sit.

But the news media will continue to pick at the carcass because there is still a large public that still believes the man can return to the heights he once commanded, or because they have a maudlin interest in seeing a man suffer for his sins — like elbowing one’s way to the front of the crowd at a traffic accident. But whatever the motivation, ESPN, the Golf Channel, and the major networks that televise golfing events will continue to hope the man shows up and makes the cut. It’s good for business. But I don’t see it happening.

In the end, the lesson Tiger should take away from  all this is the one we should all contemplate as individuals and as nations: none of us is invincible, and precisely when we think we are we had better prepare ourselves for a fall.