What I Talk About When I Talk About Golf

Lately I have been struck by the realization that virtually every sporting event is trademarked. Not only baseball, which has given us such monstrosities as PETCO Park and Tropicana Field,  but other, lesser events, such as handball (e.g., the City of Arabia United Arab Emirates Handball Federation H.H. U.A.E. President’s Cup). The most offensive of them all, to my way of thinking, is the grossly obvious corporate branding of PGA  tournaments, which have been the subject of ridicule for decades now by golfers and the public alike — who both generally prefer the tradition of “the Crosby” to the mouthful of the “AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am,” and the “Open” to any name involving mention of big corporate sponsorship.  While it is true of course that a long-term relationship with a corporate sponsor is not invariably bad, one of the problems with sponsorship (and the accompanying insistence on use of the corporate logo) is that oftentimes the relationship is not long-term, and the sponsors either eradicate or encroach on a tradition that carries a good deal of independent goodwill. By trying to appropriate goodwill and maximize corporate visibility, corporate sponsors end up making our world one where everything and everyone is branded, and nothing stands out as what it actually is.

One of the great stories on the PGA Tour last year was how Ryan Moore opted out of the sponsorship money-trap, and played the clubs he wanted to play, wore the clothes he wanted to wear, and used the ball he wanted to use. While doubtless it was part publicity stunt (he has since signed with Scratch) – it was frankly refreshing to see someone striding down the fairway with nary a logo to be seen. In a world where golfers occasionally appear as colorful bananas (e.g., Sergio Garcia) arrayed in their Company Man gear, where marketing and adsense invade every arena no matter how small, the idea of a man simply walking down the fairway in a plain grey sweater has a certain appeal.

The funny thing about Ryan Moore’s situation was that it was viewed by virtually everyone as shocking, since Moore was giving up at least a half-million dollar payday – per year – by opting out of corporate sponsorship. The mindset of the world has changed from “Why would I want to wear that silly hat?” to “You’d be dumb to pass up the free money.” These are the kind of deals that professional golfers everywhere are dying to be offered, and Moore passed it up because – according to him – he wanted to focus on winning golf tournaments. His job, after all, is to win tournaments, not to parade for the cameras showing off his Titleist cap. The paradigm shift in the way the world thinks today makes us wonder at his decision, and makes us forget that it was not so long ago that sports heroes were mocked if they turned into corporate shills. Sadly, someone saying it’s not just about the money now seems strange to us. It would be nice if the gentleman’s game could take a lesson from the past and return to its roots.

Hats off, gents. Here’s to playing for the love of the game.

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