Golf and Manners

by Henry T. Edmondson III

[Editor’s Note: President Ford, it is well known, was an avid golfer. He played the game as he lived his life: with great personal integrity. Golf not only reveals character, it helps form it. If you want to take the measure of a person all you need to do is play a round of golf together. This week is a Holy Week for Western Christians, but it’s also one for golfers, because it is the week of The Masters tournament. Our author weighs in.]

Professional golf may be the last sport to maintain a strong sense of manners. Its heritage is rooted in the Scottish origins of the game, and, on this side of the Atlantic that legacy is maintained most notably by the annual Masters Golf Tournament located every year on the verdant Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia, scheduled this year from April 6th-9th. The Masters, moreover, is the only major golf tournament whose location never changes.

For the most part, golf has preserved its moral fabric. I live across the street from the Augusta National Golf Course, and growing up, year after year, I was privileged to work on the scoreboard located by the elegant and intimate #10 green. dubbed “Camelia.” The scoreboard also looks out onto the tee for #11 (“White Dogwood”). Over the years, I absorbed the sense of propriety that is integrated into the architecture of the course; many golfers say that the galleries at the National are the best in the world. Course designer and co-founder Bobby Jones once insisted, “In golf, customs of etiquette and decorum are just as important as rules governing play.”

When we speak of “manners,” we mean the outward displays of the ethics and mores of a culture. Those ethics and mores, moreover, are the composite of the virtue of individuals; that is the moral character of the citizens of a society. It may have to do with using the right fork for dessert, but more importantly, it consists of those ligaments and sinews that hold together the skeleton of our common life: civility, respect, honor, deference, consideration; and yes, shame and disapprobation as well. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville explained that manners are the customs and habits of personal and social behavior that are informed by the moral underpinnings of a society, what Tocqueville called “the habits of the heart.” Lest one thinks this is only relevant to some “aristocracy,” in the 1923 Edition of Etiquette, Emily Post explains that the “Best Society” is indeed composed of a special class of people, but it is one that is defined by virtue—not money, class, or ancestry.

To the extent that golf is a custodian of manners, a new challenge to that role has arrived on the scene. It is the new LIV Golf Tour funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. “LIV,” now just pronounced “liv,” is the Roman Numeral 54 indicating that tournaments consist of 54 holes rather than the traditional 72. The competition also involves a “shotgun” start: players are stationed throughout the 18 holes of the course and begin playing at the same time. There is also no “cut” as long as a player stays in the field; finally, everyone is paid generously for, well, just playing.

The LIV Tour competes with the historic PGA tour, but its biggest motivation may not be wealth management or love of the game, but rather a public relations endeavor (referred to as “sportswashing”) to try and rehabilitate the Mideast country’s image after the murder and dismemberment of CNN journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Khashoggi horror is not the only PR issue. Also disturbing are the quantity and manner of executions in Saudi Arabia. Under Crown Prince Bin Salman, executions have almost doubled during his last six years of leadership. The majority of those are beheadings for non-violent offenses, such as drug use and political opposition. I was in Riyadh several years ago. The week before I arrived, there was a public beheading for the capital offense of “sorcery.” Neither will it be easily forgotten that 15 of the 19 attackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens, probably supported with money from somewhere in the country’s labyrinthine monarchy.

The LIV Tour has introduced considerable turmoil into the golfing world. If there is any truth to the scripture “The love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10),” then there is trouble aplenty on the horizon. LIV is luring players away from the PGA tour with exorbitant payoffs: Phil Mickelson was awarded a reported $200 million to go to the other league. LIV CEO Greg Norman confirmed that Tiger Woods turned down over $700 million to make the switch.

Golfer Dustin Johnson’s decision to join the LIV tour is somewhat surprising given that Johnson may still be in the best days of his career, whereas others joining may be passing their prime. In the Netflix special “Full Swing” that detailed life in professional golf,  Johnson was perhaps the most honest in the way he justified his $125 million decision. He said that if someone has the opportunity to do what they love, but to do it less often, yet be paid more, they would be “crazy” not to take the cash.

Past Masters champion Jordan Spieth and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who has 23 PGA wins and 4 majors, have both declined LIV’s offer. In fairness, Johnson would likely regret the implications of his careless remark, but it was still an unfortunate comment. All of these initial payments to players who join LIV don’t require players to par a single hole; it is just a thank-you for joining LIV. The signing bonuses are more than most if not all these players could hope to win in an entire career on the PGA Tour.

South African legend Gary Player initially took an open-minded and charitable view of the LIV Tour, exhorting his fellow golfers to let new opportunities emerge; it wasn’t long however, before Player changed his mind and warned against the LIV Tour. The PGA has responded to all of this by excluding LIV Tour players; not surprisingly, those who have joined LIV are suing the PGA.

Tocqueville noted that while a certain kind of manners may flourish in the freedom and simplicity of a democratic society, at the same time, a strong sense of manners may be easily lost in a democracy as well, as the character of individual citizens change over time. People may decide that commendable manners are no longer in fashion—vulgarity is so much more entertaining. Emily Post warned that the “general public” may “mistake the jester for the queen.” Already in the U.S., neo-marxists argue that conventional forms of politeness and decorum are tools by which the privileged “oppressors” control the “oppressed.”

There is a symbiotic relationship, then, between individual virtue and manners. The manners of a society is the composite of the character of its individuals, although that ethical environment is greater than the sum of its parts and it will support or degrade the character of its members.

Accordingly, the future of professional golf is uncertain. In the Netflix special, it is striking that every golfer who justified his decision to join LIV did so by reference to himself, or, at best, to the well-being of his family. Not one LIV convert mentioned the heritage and future of the sport. Tocqueville observed that “sentiment disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.”

Golf is now in the hands of a new generation, and we should expect that manners will shift—and at a certain level that will be okay, even appropriate. The game has room for celebratory jumps into Poppy’s Pond at Mission Hills Golf Course in California, or even the raucous fans at the 16th hole at the Phoenix Open.

But when the driving motivation for players is fueled by exorbitant, and arguably unearned, amounts of cash, the nobility of the game and the manners it supports may fade. The LIV Tour does not merely seek to be an alternate golf tour; it is out to dominate the game internationally; accordingly, it presents an existential threat to golf as many have known it. PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan conceded, “If this is a war of dollars, we don’t stand a chance. But if it is history and legacy and tradition, and right values, then we should.”

Henry T. Edmondson III

Henry T. Edmondson III is Carl Vinson Chair of Political Science & Public Administration in the Department of Government and School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Georgia College, and is a lifelong resident of Augusta, GA.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In his famous book Bowling Alone, the sociologist argued that the amount Americans bowled per capita had not declined in decades, but membership in bowling leagues had. This loss of social engagement, and thus social capital, led to a breakdown of civic virtues. What role ought sports to play in terms of creating social solidarity?
  2. Is it human nature to look after one’s own interests, or those of one’s family, first and then the rest of society only after? Can that tendency be tamed?
  3. Have monetary interests come to take precedence over all other social interests?

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