ABOVE PHOTO: Tiger Woods hits out of a bunker on the 17th hole during practice for the U.S. Open golf tournament at Merion Golf Club, Wednesday, June 12, 2013, in Ardmore, Pa.
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
By Eric Adelson
ARDMORE, Pa. – Tiger Woods did the game of golf a favor by the way he handled Sergio Garcia’s tone deaf and racist joke at his expense.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the sport did nothing in return.
The PGA Tour whiffed in its response to Garcia’s “we will serve fried chicken” barb, announcing no punishment where one was clearly needed.
Garcia is sorry – he said so multiple times on Tuesday at Merion Golf Club, where he’s preparing for the 113th U.S. Open – but PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem should be just as sorry for staying silent on the matter. He was in the room when Garcia dropped his stink bomb last month at an awards dinner.
“We don’t comment on player disciplinary matters,” said Tour spokeswoman Laura Neal in reply to an emailed question about whether Garcia was sanctioned.
“No comment” is not enough. The game of golf has a long history of unfair treatment toward minorities, notoriously keeping African-American members out of Augusta National until the 1990s. This was an opportunity to show progress, to show awareness.
Just recently, NBA star Roy Hibbert made an off-color comment in a press conference, and he was heavily fined. When Kobe Bryant used a derogatory epithet, he was punished. Commissioner David Stern made it perfectly clear that insensitive remarks will be met with fines or worse, calling Bryant’s gay slur “offensive and inexcusable.” We are in an era where racist, sexist, and discriminatory remarks are rebuked quickly and forcefully – even when they’re intended as humorous.
But apparently not in golf.
Finchem did meet privately with Garcia. “Following our meeting,” said European Tour CEO George O’Grady, speaking on behalf of Finchem, “we have accepted his full apology, and we consider the matter closed.”
Perhaps a reprimand was dealt. That’s not nearly enough, though. Garcia’s joke, although made at a private dinner, went viral. The response should be public too. “Behind closed doors” is exactly golf’s problem, not its solution. Finchem didn’t even follow up on O’Grady’s comment that most of Garcia’s friends are “colored athletes.”
Instead, it was left to Woods and Garcia to address the media. Both did so admirably. Woods could have justifiably skewered Garcia, fueling another news cycle. Instead he said it was time to move on and play golf. Garcia opened his remarks Tuesday by apologizing again. He could have and should have apologized in person on Monday when he saw Woods on the practice range, but he did write Woods a note and he has been public in his expressed contrition. His chief sponsor, TaylorMade, is reviewing its agreement with Garcia, and the golfer is scared (if not scared straight).
The temptation is to move on. And, with such a distinguished tournament about to start on this jewel of a golf course on Thursday, few will complain about placing the game front and center.
But in moving on, the leaders of the sport have set a bad precedent. If the No. 1 player in the game is the victim of a joke like that, and no official word of punishment ever comes, what’s the implicit conclusion about the sport’s commitment to openness?
Finchem can get away with his silence. Few will call him out, on or off the course. ESPN’s Bob Harig and the Boston Globe’s Michael Whitmer both demanded punishment for Garcia. But that’s hardly a groundswell of an objection.
The shame of the situation was brought into high relief Tuesday when a reporter for The Trentonian, L.A. Parker, sat in the front row and told Garcia his words were “stinging” not just because of the affront to a minority golfer, but also to himself and other African-Americans who love golf.
Garcia said he felt the weight of the responsibility. He took the charge seriously. “I can obviously see that I hurt a lot of people,” he said. Yet Parker is still quite upset not only at the situation, but at Finchem.
“Finchem should have done a better job with this,” Parker said. “Is he serious about this or not?”
Parker rightly pointed out that this controversy has become wholly about the two men involved – Woods and Garcia. It’s become a soap opera – a diversion from a deeper problem. Will they be paired together over the weekend? Will animosity linger? Will we see the aftereffects in their individual games?
Enough of that. The two men have done a great deal publicly to put the incident behind them. Woods deserves to focus on his game, and Garcia, despite his abhorrent comments, should be taken at his contrite word. (Though a face-to-face apology would still be appropriate.)
The Tour? It did nothing to protect its modern pioneer, the man who has lined everyone’s pockets and kept the game from the fringes of irrelevance. It made no sound when it should have been screaming that it would make the sport a discrimination-free zone for minorities of all backgrounds.
This week is a celebration of accessible golf: Merion is located a short train ride from one of the most diverse cities in the nation. Simply by holding the U.S. Open here, the USGA took a step closer to making the sport approachable for those living far from gated communities and fenced-in pools.
The sport is better because the U.S. Open is here. The sport is better because Tiger Woods is here.
The sport should also be better from this racist incident. Sadly, it’s not.