Bubba Watson, PGA's Unwillingness to Criticize Augusta National Hurts Golf

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Bubba Watson, PGA's Unwillingness to Criticize Augusta National Hurts Golf
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Bubba Watson walked the company line, staying neutral on Augusta National's men-only member policy.

Every so often athletes have the opportunity to leverage their achievements and compel others to question the status quo.

Muhammad Ali did it when he defiantly refused service in Vietnam.  Arthur Ashe used his unprecedented success at Wimbledon to criticize the U.S. government’s inertia in South Africa.  Bill Russell endangered his celebrity to denounce prejudice (once even referring to Boston as “a flea market of racism").  And Jackie Robinson submitted to hate speech and threats to his family’s safety in breaking down baseball’s color barrier. 

Fast forward to last Monday, when, appearing on Piers Morgan Tonight as part of a weeklong victory lap, 2012 Masters champ Bubba Watson became the latest golfer to shrug his shoulders at Augusta National’s men-only member policy.

In “this day and age,” said Watson, “I don’t see any reason why it [female membership] could hurt.  But again, it’s a club that has rules, that can do that.”

How’s that for a feeble rebuke?  Nothing quite as satisfying as athletes channeling their inner publicist, I always say. 

But give Watson credit for first-rate intuition.  Though his response fell shorter of an indictment than most cynics thought possible, it was precisely the sort of accommodation the PGA Tour's made a staple of.

Of course, tour commissioner Tim Finchem will tell you that the Masters’ non-sanctioned status leaves the PGA Tour without any recourse—a ridiculous defense considering the ease with which he and his cohorts shuffle between their role as golf’s vigorous guardians and April’s ineffectual body—but the Tour's frequent reliance on “tradition” as cover for otherwise antiquated behavior only adds to perceptions of golf as a blue-blooded sport best symbolized by country club gates and member-only locker rooms.

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Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne poses for a photo-op with Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.

That’s not to say the PGA Tour hasn’t been successful in growing its sport (1.7 million new golfers in 2008), or that there aren’t those within its ranks devoted to reaching new segments of the population.  

Indeed, the PGA Tour has presided over the genesis of an impressive group of new golfers, and its programs have outfitted a commendable number of low-income youth.  But I’m not so sure that Tiger’s gravitational pull hasn't had more to do with it than any Tour program.  And whatever the impetus, it’s hard to ignore the Tour's hypocrisy so long as it continues its de facto endorsement of Augusta’s exclusionary policies.

Perhaps if the defense of “tradition” wasn’t juxtaposed against so many obvious deviations, I might be less critical.  Show me a photo of Sam Snead swinging a titanium-graphite “wood” or Walter Hagen burying an eagle with a belly putter or Bubba Watson replicating his miraculous shot from the pine needles with a club from Bobby Jones’ bag, and I’d be happy to bow out of the debate.

But even at Augusta, there’s plenty of evidence that belies the members’ supposed rigidity, and while club chairman Billy Payne and Finchem do their best to mollify critics under the guise of tradition, it seems neither the PGA Tour nor Augusta adhere to custom as often as they maintain.

So, while it seems improbable that Augusta National will join us in the twenty-first century anytime soon, the PGA Tour's reluctance is more vexing.  If, indeed, golf is open to all stripes, and if indeed the Tour has a sincere desire to expand its reach, then we can expect its condemnation to be forthcoming, right?

Not likely.  Whether borne out of self-preservation, apathy or just good old-fashioned elitism, the PGA Tour has assented to the notion that “rights” make “wrong” behaviors unassailable.   And though that may be a frustrating, even irresponsible premise, it’s one the Tour's grown quite comfortable with.

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