After waiting the century Mark Twain directed his publishers to wait, his autobiography has finally come out. That has little to do with golf, I suppose, until I tell you I had Twain in mind perusing the latest news about the PGA Tour. That news has concerned the tour’s push for a series of “designated tournaments” that would require some number of appearances from the top players, with the idea of supporting those tournaments—like, for instance, whatever they’re calling the Greater Milwaukee Open now—that have in effect become second-class citizens of the Tour because, for whatever reason (scheduling conflicts, etc.), the top players no longer, or never did, come to play. The LPGA already has a similar policy—but despite being publicly supported by a number of players, including ones on the tour’s policy board, it has been allowed to die a quiet death. The only player, so far as I know, to speak on the record about why is Davis Love III, noted major-winning golfer and, as profiles of him always seem to mention, “Southern gentleman.”
According to Love, reports CBS golf reporter Steve Elling, the problem “is that tournaments under discussion for inclusion as designees had expressed reservations about being cast as failures of a sort.” “‘It sounds great,’” Love told Elling, “‘unless you are one of those tournaments, then it becomes, ‘We have Phil Mickelson, but they made him play.’ I think that almost makes it worse.” This last sentence is, I think, difficult to understand: I can’t say for sure to what the words “almost,” “it,” and “worse” refer.
By “it,” I can only suppose Love means the “stigma” of being a tournament that Tiger et al do not play. But surely anyone can tell which tournaments Tiger does or does not play just by looking at any listing of who is playing. I don’t think it’s any secret that Tiger is probably not going to play the Greater Greensboro Open, whereas Davis Love’s remarks seem to say that this could somehow be kept secret, that somehow nobody would know Tiger wasn’t going to show up that week until they were actually on the grounds.
“Worse” seems to refer to a notion that actually doing something about the de facto split between A-list and B-list tournaments would be counterproductive—taking action, to Love’s mind, would increase, not decrease, the damage. He doesn’t, however, appear quite sure about that—hence the word “almost.” But that’s the way he wants to bet.
Still, why does Love believe that inaction is better than action? His motivation, so far as I can say, has entirely to do with some concept of honor or face or the like: by admitting that some tournaments are not of the same quality as others, those tournaments would lose face. It’s just here that Davis Love’s remarks suggested Twain to me, because of Twain’s penetrating dissection of the Southern mind in Life on the Mississippi.
That mind, Twain says, has everything to do with what’s become known as a “culture of honor” that included dueling and, in the extremis, ambush. Twain cited the following incident as typical of the South, which he found in a local newspaper of the day:
One day last month, Professor Sharpe, of the Somerville, Tenn., Female College, ‘a quiet and gentlemanly man,’ was told that his brother-in-law, a Captain Burton, had threatened to kill him. Burton, it seems, had already killed one man and driven his knife into another. The Professor armed himself with a double-barreled shot gun, started out in search of his brother-in-law, found him playing billiards in a saloon, and blew his brains out.
Seemingly an isolated incident, but already by 1880 there was study of the South’s violent culture done by a reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial, and in 1933, “the year the federal government first published homicide data for the entire country, the ten states with the highest murder rates were all Southern or border states that had been involved in the Confederacy,” as Pulitzer Prize-winner Fox Butterfield observed in his All God’s Children in 1995. And two researchers at the University of Michigan, Malcolm Gladwell tells us in his recent Outliers, were able to reproduce the same effect in students from the South attending the University of Michigan in the 1990s.
Davis Love’s position about the tour’s proposed new policy, now in limbo, has nothing to do with blood feuds or murder, of course. But his thinking about it, or so I would judge, has everything to do with a notion of “honor,” and that, I would submit, has everything to do with Love’s upbringing in Georgia. In the 19th century, Fox Butterfield observes, Southern juries “were readily prepared to entertain arguments that a defendant had … been provoked on a point of honor,” and so acts that would be considered criminal in other parts of the United States could have little or no consequence in the South. What Love is saying cannot be understood unless it be that the policy proposal is an insult to the “honor” of certain tournaments—as if golf tournaments were themselves a species of Southern gentleman.
As I’ve said though, Love’s position only makes sense if there were some way in which we didn’t know that there’s a difference between, say, the John Deere Classic (which used to be the Quad Cities Classic) and the U.S. Open. Surely the difference is readily apparent: who does Love think he’s fooling? It might be arguable that seeking to “flatten” those differences by requiring big-name players to play some of the lesser tournaments each year is misguided, because such differences are inevitable; what seems ridiculous, to me at any rate, is to argue against such an attempt because there aren’t any differences.
What might also be said about this whole matter is something about molehills and mountains, tempests and teapots, because after all it’s just a minor disagreement about how to make millionaires even richer. But there is, or so I suspect, something deeper at work here: something about appearances and reality. Davis Love is saying that we must maintain the pretense that all tournaments are equal when we all—including Davis Love—know that isn’t so. What Davis Love’s argument amounts to is that pretending that all tournaments are equal relieves us of the responsibility of actually doing anything that might make them actually more equal. It’s a kind of thought, I fancy that the more wizened of my readers might recognize, that’s been applied at other times and places. Is anyone, besides Davis Love, volunteering to move there?