Time Approaches

The time approaches
That will with due decision make us know
What we shall say we have and what we owe.
—Macbeth V, iv

“I think it’s time” the CEO of Taylor-Made, Mark King, said recently about the idea of creating two sets of rules in golf, one for pros and one for amateurs. The equipment manufacturers have historically been against that because, as King says, “we use tour professionals as the main reason aspirational golfers will buy our products.” It’s been one way to tie together excellent golfers and other golfers into what we might call—as has become the custom about everything—GolfNation. But King’s remarks might be a sign that the solidarity of golfers is being reconsidered. And, since everything in golf is about Tiger Woods … Tiger Woods.

The rules-making bodies who together write the Rules of Golf, the USGA and the Royal & Ancient, have also been traditionally against two sets of rules. But there’s a lot of evidence that says they’re reconsidering—and that the game of golf isn’t becoming the less elitist sport that’s been promised since Tiger.

The rules-makers have, as I say, two reasons for having only one set of rules. The first is just a simple matter of the difficulties of running a tournament: would amateurs playing in a pro event, for instance, be playing under another set of rules than their competitors? And that’s just the first of many problems imaginable under a two-rule regime, many of which are also equally imaginably the subject of lawsuits. And so on. Two rules opens up a huge can of worms, which is one reason why it’s always been resisted.

That isn’t to say that there hasn’t in effect been two sets of rules in the past. For many years, for instance, the British played a different ball than the Americans did—smaller, thus better for cutting through the gales of the British Isles. More recently, the R&A allowed drivers with a “spring-like effect” (the club that caused all the trouble was the Callaway ERC II) to be put in play, while the USGA outlawed them—but that only lasted a few years.

Mainly though, such differences have been disagreements between the two rules-makers about some particular issue or another. But deliberately creating two sets of rules is another thing entirely. The other reason, or set of reasons, the USGA and R&A have always opposed making two sets of rules is perhaps the more determining in that sense.

That reason is the one discussed in the movie, Tin Cup, a movie that gets a lot wrong about golf but also gets some things right, and in this case at least gets how the USGA thinks about itself. The scene is the one where Kevin Costner’s character, Roy McAvoy, is discussing how to impress Rene Russo’s character (it was the 90s), and he observes that not only is the U.S. Open the biggest golf tournament in the world—it is—but also “the most democratic golf tournament in the world.”

What McAvoy means is that the U.S. Open really is that; it’s open, or as McAvoy says, “Anybody with a 1.4 handicap or better’s got a shot at it.” All you have to do is qualify: local and sectional, the same process that PGA Tour stars not otherwise qualified and 16-year-old kids go through. It’s that thought that keeps the blue-coats at the USGA up at night. Whatever their other faults—and the USGA takes heat for being uptight East Coast snobs, which in a lot of ways they are—the USGA has always promised to take that thought seriously.

Maybe it’s not though: the latest word from the USGA regarding the Open is that requirements for entry have changed. The top 50 in the world rankings are still in, only now there will be two different cut-off dates, instead of one. (Which would have helped Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler last year.) In 2012, the top 60 are in. Instead of the top 15 and ties from the previous year’s tournament being exempted, it will now be the top 10. (Which hurts Justin Leonard among others.) But the oddest change is that the winner of the Players Championship will now get a three-year exemption, instead of one. That’s hard to figure.

The Players Championship—which is often billed as the “fifth major” because it blends the Masters (it’s the same course every year) with the U.S. Open (it’s the same ridiculously hard course) every year—has after all had some of the flukiest finishes of virtually any tournament in the world the last decade or so. Last year it was won by Tim Clark, who’s known as a “gritty” player, which is code for “can’t hit it very far.” Garcia won in a kind of anti-climactic playoff with another “gritty veteran”-type player (code for: “really can’t hit it far”), Paul “Sunshine” Goydos. Fred “gritty veteran” Funk won in ’05, and of course the Jack Fleck of the last decade, Craig Perks, won in ’02.

The winner of this tournament already has three-year exemptions to the Masters and the British Open, so in a sense the U.S. Open is just following the crowd. But in conjunction with the other moves concerning exemptions, might appear that the Open is certainly becoming less of what Tin Cup celebrated—open to anyone with the right ability. It isn’t as though the ratio of exemptions to qualifiers has changed (still 50/50 according to USGA official Mike Davis); it’s just that I am not so sure that giving Fred Funk (who won at age 49) three free trips to the Open is strictly necessary.

The USGA has taken the same eye to the entry path for amateurs. There’s been a world ranking for amateurs since ’06, but now the USGA has decided to take anyone in the top 50 off that list into their championships—and for the Open, the top 50 can skip local qualifying and go straight to sectionals. Mike Davis says, it seems, that this is due to the trouble of “securing the participation of top international players” who otherwise would have to take their chances on qualifying—like everyone else, or in other words, the thing makes the U.S. Open the “most democratic of all majors” as Golf puts it.

And that’s the rub. The USGA’s argument is by making its tournaments more accessible to foreign competition, the level of play is raised: nobody’s going to spend the money to come the U.S. without knowing if they are playing or not. The world ranking is supposed to be the equalizer that, like the grueling qualifying process, ensures high-quality play.

But (here comes the Tiger Woods stuff) it took nearly two years for Woods to fall off the top of the pro world rankings when Lee Westwood—who hasn’t won a tournament since ’09—finally did. I’m not as familiar with the amateur side rankings (few are), and granted they are run by the USGA and R&A jointly, not by a company with an interest in the proceedings (as Sony has been on the pro side), but the point is that however they are constructed, they are going to reward the haves. World rankings, in short, are inherently anti-democratic, because they reward past performance. You know, like an aristocracy.

Taken separately, Mark King’s remarks and the USGA’s tweaks to its qualifying system might seem innocuous enough. But what they seem to describe is a system in which there’s a global super-elite that globe trots around the world following what are—even in amateur tournaments—big-money events, and another tier consisting of … the hapless rest of us. People said that Tiger Woods would mean golf would become less elitist, but the actual numbers of players of the game have remained about the same since the 1990s.

In the same way, the income gap between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans has widened in the past half-century or so despite the fact that, as everyone knows, the 1960s saved the world. “After half a century of anti-racism and feminism,” remarks a professor I know of who’s investigated relative income levels, “the U.S. today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow.” Maybe “it’s time” to start asking ourselves whatever it is we actually mean by “democratic.”