Sponsors, distance and white stakes

Each week we ask our panel of writers, PGA members and golf industry experts to weigh in with their views on the hot topics of the day.

Justin Thomas got himself in hot water a couple of weeks back when he made a homophobic slur directed at himself after missing a short putt during the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He made a lengthy apology on TV after the round and appeared genuinely contrite. However, that was not enough to prevent one of his sponsors, Ralph Lauren, from dropping Thomas last week, saying they were “disheartened” by his language. POLO by Ralph Lauren has sponsored Thomas since he turned pro. Did Ralph Lauren over-react or was this an appropriate punishment for Thomas?

Jim Deeks, Fairways Magazine (@jimdeeks): I’d say it was both.  You want to give JT a pass because he did apologize immediately; it was a stupid remark, but he was contrite and surely, he’s not the first person to say something stupid.  Mature, intelligent people will surely let this go.  Ralph Lauren, on the other hand, would be at risk for severe criticism and backlash if they had either ignored or simply smacked JT on the wrist.  JT doesn’t need Ralph Lauren and Ralph Lauren doesn’t need JT, so I’d say the matter was handled about as well as could be, and we can all move on.

Craig Loughry, Golf Ontario (@craigloughry): I’m not doubting his sincerity and remorse, he clearly said something stupid in the heat of the moment. Sponsors can choose to do anything they want, and whether a player respects those decisions or not is irrelevant. Those players are paid lots of money to represent that brand, and if they don’t represent that brand in a manner they like, then they can terminate the contract. I see a day that these companies start reducing their risk and really scrutinize who they back and why. I’m certain these companies have strategies behind who they partner with in relation o their marketing strategies, but there are always a handful that terminate for misbehaviour. And I don’t see this changing, inevitably there will be a few more falling outs by the end of this year even. Do I think Ralph Lauren/Polo over reacted? I don’t. Its their money and brand and if they don’t like how its being represented by their spokesperson or representative, make a change. I find it that simple. I do wonder if the day will ever come where a player denounces their partner/sponsor for corporate misbehaviour or hold their rights and only align themselves with a responsible company. I’m not sure a lot of that is happening in the market (it seems highest bidder wins).

Michael Schurman, Master Professional / Hall of Fame Member, PGA of Canada: Sponsors spend a lot of money, time and effort building their brand. In many cases, it is the deciding factor as to whether a consumer buys their products. It needs to be protected. However, when they act in a high-profile manner, they attract attention to the accused perpetrator, the issue and their company. The public identifies the issue with the company regardless of how vehemently they deny their connection. They would be better off to act quietly behind closed doors.

TJ Rule, Golf Away Tours (@GolfAwayTJ): This is a tough one.  I think that Ralph Lauren could have handled it differently, but you can’t blame them for dropping him.  What he said was inexcusable.  It’s fine for him to be upset on the course and use foul language, but when the language you use in that situation is homophobic, it shows an inherent lack of sensibility.  I like JT and he has had a pretty impeccable image to this point in his career.  His apology did feel genuine, but it doesn’t hide the fact that his immediate reaction in a heated moment was to use that type of language.  I hope he takes further steps to learn from this mistake (sensitivity training, donations to LGBTQ causes, etc), and he can get back to being the likeable superstar that he has shown himself to be.

Hal Quinn, Freelance Writer, Vancouver: As with all things American now, this incident too has become massively divisive. At first blush, given JT immediately volunteering contrition and a sincere apology, thought it may have been used by POLO as a teaching moment. Maybe not. As an aside, have always noticed how badly the POLO shirts hung on JT with the collars looking as if they needed a long visit with a steam iron. Could that have been part of the board room reaction? Was the unkempt look selling any shirts? However sharply divided, in America both sides agree that it’s always about the money.

Peter Mumford, Fairways Magazine (@FairwaysMag): If anybody has ever sat courtside at an NBA game or near the field at an NFL game, they’d realize that Justin Thomas is a rank amateur when it comes to making inappropriate or politically incorrect remarks. Thomas was wrong to say what he said but he apologized. It could have ended right there. Or Ralph Lauren could have made a statement and used it as a lesson learned. But hypocrisy reigns supreme in the sponsorship world. Corporate titans can’t abide a homophobic slur from one of their brand ambassadors but think nothing of turning out over-priced product in Asian or Chinese sweatshops. We know that athletes rarely hold politicians or companies to account, but wouldn’t it be cool if an athlete said no thanks to a sponsorship?

In an interview last week, Bryson DeChambeau was asked how you defend a course against Bryson DeChambeau. His response was, “You can’t really combat the distance.” Yet the bombers don’t win every week and not every player on the PGA Tour feels the need to bulk up like BDC to add yardage. Length is just one skill amongst many in golf. Is it possible we are too concerned with distance?

Deeks: Personally, I AM concerned with distance.  (First, there’s my own lack of it, but that’s another matter.)  I realize the bombers don’t win every week, but they are at an advantage because when they hit the ball toward the target, they’re getting closer than non-bombers, and we all know the closer you get, the more likely you’re going to shoot a low number.  On the positive side, the bombers are forcing the non-bombers to be even more accurate and more deft around the greens, to be able to keep up.  On the negative side, the bombers are gradually going to dominate the game, further distancing themselves from the others, and certainly from the rest of us mere mortals, who simply can’t compete or identify with the game they play.

Loughry: BDC is wrong, there are plenty of ways to combat “the distance”, everyone has heard my thoughts on this, reduce the width of fairways, increase the rough height to put a premium on playing from the short stuff. I think there is a slight advantage to being long off the tee, but you have to be fairly accurate too and “get it into the hole” otherwise it doesn’t guarantee a win. And so, bombers aren’t winning every week is right, Kevin Na isn’t a long ball hitter by any measure (currently about 191st in Driving Distance average on Tour at 289.5 yards per drive), but he won this week in Hawaii (and multiple times in the past 24 months). If distance is such a premium and advantage, then how does Na ever win? Other skills, that’s how, its not just about how far you can drive it, the game will always be more than about that.

Schurman: The best players have always been among the longest hitters. For the first 250 years, the game was played not much changed then came the ‘bounding billy’. A golf ball that travelled 30 to 40 yards or about 15 to 20% further making courses obsolete. Since the ProV1 arrived in 2000, technology has combined to produce a similar increase. The choices are either build longer courses or curtail distance through design. Fans don’t like watching the players bogged down with long rough or pot bunkers. They want to see flashing sinew, high blasts into the sky and ‘hit for the fences’ swings. Prohibition didn’t stop drinking alcohol. Regardless, of the restrictions, someone will always figure out a way around them. I’d like to see a ‘Hickory’ tournament on TV and see whether the game catches on.

Rule: I tend to agree with him that it’s tough to combat the distance if he can keep the ball in play, but let’s be honest – how many people can bulk up to hit the ball 360 yards and still keep it on the golf course?  I think there is a balance for most players.  DeChambeau isn’t the most accurate of drivers obviously, but during weeks where he keeps the ball in play, such as he did at Winged Foot, he deserves to have an advantage.  However, I think that would be the exception to the rule for most players.

Quinn: Kevin Na sure isn’t concerned about distance after his win at the Waialae Pitch & Putt. Neither are the two 20-somethings I saw at the range the day Nick Taylor was shooting 62 in Hawaii. They were banging drivers and hooting and hollering trying to hit the back net – its was cold, about 12 C, and the balls were tired, so the net is quite a poke. They were loving it, like me and my pals did at that age, but these guys are different. They were very fit, had great swings (and big-time club head speed), and back in high school their golf coach didn’t teach math or geography or whatever all week then babysit the golf team for a couple of hours. And their gym instructors knew what they were doing. No matter what golf’s brain trust decides to do (if anything), their generation is going to hit the ball farther than mine, but not as far as the generation after them.

Mumford: Bryson is correct. Long hitters have a huge advantage, but that advantage can be tempered with all manner of obstacles from penal rough to ponds to pot bunkers. Firm fairways and greens help too. However, professional golf is entertainment, and nobody wants to see the same show week after week. Both Kevin Na (last week’s winner) and Kevin Kisner said recently that they pick tournaments where they know short hitters have a better chance. By and large, the PGA Tour has done a pretty good job of balancing the venues and keeping scores low when they want. Personally, I’d prefer to see them lean more to the skill game but that’s just me. I’m one of the short hitters.

Prior to the Sony Open, officials added internal out-of-bounds markers between the 10th and 18th holes at Waialae Country Club to prevent players from taking a shortcut on the final hole. What’s your take on this tactic?

Deeks: I didn’t see it, so it’s hard to comment.  But in principle, I agree with players being forced to play the hole as it was designed.  Taking a shortcut is like allowing a Formula One driver, or a runner to cut across the infield and rejoin the track with making the turn.  I don’t care if you can hit the ball 450 yards and carry it over the Empire State building, you must play the hole the way it was intended to be played.

Loughry: It was the right call to put this in course OB in place. I heard some players were able to hit wedges in during practice rounds, and clearly that’s not the original designed intent of the hole. Normally there would have been stands that wouldn’t permit that direction of play, but with limited access to the event by fans and so, the stands weren’t built this year allowing for players to potentially take advantage of this play. Putting it in made sense to me, I would have hated to see some players exploit the option, it wouldn’t have looked good on the Tour and announcers and fans would mostly have been disappointed watching something like that.

Schurman: There was a very well-known golf architect in the Toronto area who is famous for ‘on course’ OBs and protective fences. This is a complete lack of planning, poor use of land and a lack of understanding of the game. It’s a farce! When Donald Ross was told he designed such beautiful holes; he replied “God designed them. I just find them”. Surely God wouldn’t design such a hole. First, it should be called by the correct terminology. It isn’t OB, it is a “No play zone” or ‘ground from which play is forbidden’. A very large and dense hedge running right beside the tee would eliminate the problem.

Rule: I think it was the right call, if for nothing else to protect the players coming up the 10th hole.  It’s a huge safety issue.  The hole was reachable for every player in the field playing it the traditional way anyway, so it was good that they kept them from hitting it up 10.

Quinn: I was always taught that, by definition, there can’t be OB within the boundaries of a golf course. Unless it’s a homemade Mom & Pop layout, that shouldn’t change. Waialae is on the rather long list of Hawaiian courses I have played but would not pay to play. That they had to create an internal OB simply underlines that the layout has outlived its usefulness as a Tour stop.

Mumford: Internal OB stakes have no place on a golf course. Period! The PGA Tour said the move was needed because the spectator stands that would usually prevent such a short-cut weren’t there. Hogwash! It’s just a poorly designed hole that doesn’t work anymore. A big hedge or tree could have prevented players from using the 10th fairway. But a box of white stakes costs less than new landscaping.

The Round Table
The Round Table is a panel of golf writers, PGA members and industry experts.

4 thoughts on “Sponsors, distance and white stakes

  1. Shocked but not surprised that the vast majority of commentators want to lump JT’s homophobic slur into a general swearing bucket. JT is one of my favourite players to watch and I’ve been involved in sports all my life so am well aware that in-action expletives are part of the game but this is an exception. I’m 64 years old so grew up in a time when this word was common and generally seen as just another generic expletive. That time is long gone. So long that JT has grown up in a time when it was always an unacceptable slur. The fact that this term was even in his ‘repertoire’ is what concerns me. It may be more revealing than many seem to admit to. Ralph Lauren had no choice in this and did exactly what they should have. By the way, the shot about the look of the shirts on him and RL just using this as an opportunity is beneath the commentator.

    1. Thanks for your comments Dane. I agree that POLO had to do something but considering JT’s generally good guy image and his sincere apology, something short of severing the connection could have been more appropriate. It seems like nobody “won” in this, when there were plenty of ways for both sides to create a positive outcome.

  2. Polo versus Thomas. I’m glad that Peter mentioned the important issue of criticizing someone for their imperfections when you are not perfect yourself. In this day of political correctness I think Ralph Lauren could have benefited more by taking a different path than doing what everyone does in these situations.
    If the relationship was originally built on solid ground then the relationship should work hard to find a way forward.
    That would be refreshingly healthy in my opinion.

    1. As noted in my comments to Dane above, I agree completely Dave. Our current culture seems to require swift and often dramatic action, presumably advised by PR people and lawyers. Working it out or finding a compromise takes time and a commitment to resolve the issue. I suspect RL will regret this. JT hopefully has learned a lesson and will continue to be an elite player and a great ambassador for his sponsors … but not POLO.

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