Vousden’s inner demons

Thought for the Day
Don’t test the depth of the water with both feet

Letting the Mask Slip
Is the smiling, cheerful image that pro golfers exude really all there is, or can they occasionally reveal a darker side?

It is only human to want to be liked, so we work, to varying degrees, to show the world the version of ourselves we want it to see. When an elderly, slow-moving person temporarily halts our progress we don’t kick them out of the way (unless you’re Vijay Singh). Or if someone completely misunderstands something we say, we try to smile and ignore their mistake, rather than say: ‘No, you fatuous dummy, that’s not what I meant.’ This ‘nicer’ version of ourselves is something we all have to project in order to co-exist amicably with the rest of humanity, it’s an essential part of the lubricant that oils any kind of social interaction. Life would be a nightmare if everyone said exactly what was on their mind or did whatever they chose.

Pro golfers are no different. They smile for the cameras, sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans and, with the exception of Tiger Woods, try hard not to fling clubs in anger or swear in the vicinity of directional microphones (which, during a tournament are pretty much everywhere). But every now and then this carefully constructed mask slips a little and we glimpse the dark side – the more selfish, less hospitable inner self that we all have but which remains largely hidden.

Take Phil Mickelson, for example. He has worked tirelessly (or maybe it comes naturally) to smile, doff his cap or give a thumbs-up gesture whenever he’s applauded. And he is well-known for spending far more time after his round than most other golfers, trying to accommodate as many fan demands as possible. Just occasionally, however, we catch a glimpse of a different Phil.

At the press conference concluding the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, he threw his captain, Tom Watson, under a bus, essentially blaming his strategy for the scale of America’s defeat. It wasn’t direct, he simply compared the event to the 2008 contest (which America won), and cited many of then captain Paul Azinger’s strategic masterstrokes, and in the process, implicitly and unfavourably compared them with Watson’s decisions. What it boiled down to was case of sour grapes – Phil twice lobbied Watson to be included in the Saturday foursomes and was refused. The two things may be unrelated, of course, and if you believe that: Come here, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you.

Four years later, in the US Open at Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson over-hit a putt on the 13th hole that was destined to run down a slope and off the green, so he raced after it and hit a moving ball, which he knew was against the rules. After the round he said: ‘It was meant to take advantage of the rules as best as you can. In that situation, I was just going back and forth. I’d gladly take the two shots over continuing that display.’ He even seemed proud that his knowledge of the rules allowed him to pull a fast one.

Naturally, it’s a matter of interpretation but to my mind, deliberately breaking a rule in order to gain an advantage is cheating. Phil did later apologise.

Then there’s Mr Genial Amiability, Matt Kuchar, who perambulates his way around the golf course with the insouciant, sunny and smiling air of a man who has just won the lottery, out for a stroll with a supermodel on each arm. He positively radiates good ‘ol deep south American charm (he was born in Florida) and it’s almost impossible to find a photograph in which he’s not grinning.

But hold on a cotton pickin’ minute. Is this the same Matt Kuchar who tried to stiff a Mexican caddie out of a fair payday? In the 2018 Mayakoba Golf Classic, Kuchar used David Ortiz, a local caddie and, after winning the event, and $1.3 million, slipped his man $5,000. A caddie can usually expect up to 10% of winnings. Smiling Matt poured petrol onto flames with his comment: ‘For a guy who makes $200 a day, a $5,000 week is a really big week.’ He added: ‘I certainly don’t lose any sleep over this.’

Some days later, like Mickelson, he issued an apology and stumped up $50,000 for the caddie but also like Mickelson, you were left wondering: Did he belatedly issue his mea culpa because he believed it, or in response to almost universal criticism? In short, did they both bow to the court of public opinion, rather than feel true remorse?

And Matt has form. In early 2019, he and Sergio Garcia were fighting out a quarter-final match in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. On the 7th hole Sergio’s putt came to rest a couple of inches from the hole, he walked up and backhanded it but the ball lipped out. Kuchar said: ‘Sergio, I didn’t say anything [to concede the putt], I’m not sure how this works out.’

The first bit of that statement is fine and because Garcia didn’t give his opponent a chance to concede (which he surely would have done), it was Sergio’s fault and he should have carried the can for his own stupid error. But the second part of Kuchar’s statement, that he didn’t know how they should proceed, is blatant horseradish. It is impossible to think he didn’t know exactly what the consequences were and to hide behind the need to consult a rules official was simply an effort to distance himself from his own actions. And when that happens, it’s usually because someone has done something of which they’re ashamed, or at least should be.

I was going to add a few stories about that genial, twinkly-eyed Irishman Darren Clarke but don’t have enough room – he deserves a chapter of his own.

Quote of the Week
The chief reaction among amateurs to poor putting, it seems to me, is exasperation, combined with a sort of vague hope that, by some kind of mini-miracle, it will all have gotten better by the next time they play.
Jack Nicklaus

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