IT ALWAYS provokes a smile, or at least a shake of the head. Whenever golf’s carefully-crafted veneer of absolute purity in all things is breached by a less-than-savoury example of perfectly natural and/or normal everyday human behaviour by one or more members of the sport’s cosseted community, the resulting outcry invariably reeks of hypocrisy.
And so it has been over the past few days when a minor spat between Presidents Cup team-mates and fellow Australians Robert Allenby and Geoff Ogilvy has been steadily built up into something akin to the Third World War by the game’s ever-eager thought-police.
Ogilvy’s perfectly justified criticism of the wretched Allenby in the wake of the latter’s claim that his miserable and pointless performance in the recent Presidents Cup was due solely to the, well, miserable performances of his various partners (of whom Ogilvy was one) was just that: perfectly justified. It is one of the basic tenets of any team sport that the members of said teams must win and lose together; anything else and the notion of unity is lost.
So it was the breaking of that unspoken code to which Ogilvy objected, not – as was reported by those relying on second-hand reports of the five-minute affair – any objection to Allenby’s assessment of his play, specifically his erratic driving, when the not-so-dynamic duo lost their third-day Presidents Cup foursome by 3&2 to Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson. Ogilvy was well aware that he played to less than his potential, a characteristic he shared with the hapless Allenby, who missed a series of putts over the course of their 16 holes together and, it must be said, one or two fairways himself. As Ogilvy was quick to acknowledge, the Americans had simply played better golf.
Anyway, the bigger point is that such minor disagreements are nothing new in golf. Just as happens with any group of people forced to spend large amounts of time together, in competition with one another, personality clashes and arguments and feuds and all the rest of it are inevitable.
Perhaps the highest-profile example of lingering animosity – although now happily resolved – was that of Jack Nicklaus and the man he superseded at the top of the game back in the early 1960s, Arnold Palmer. Despite being inextricably linked as two members of the so-called “Big Three” (Gary Player was the other), the “Golden Bear” and the “King” harboured an ill-concealed antipathy for the other over many years.
Australian Jack Newton, a PGA Tour player in the late 1970s before a horrific accident cost him an eye, an arm and his career, was a witness to just one example of the Nicklaus-Palmer rivalry.
“The crowd always pulled for Arnie against Jack, but Jack put up with it,” recalls Newton, who was runner-up in the 1975 Open at Carnoustie, as well as the 1980 Masters. “I remember sitting in a clubhouse when Nicklaus and Palmer had a bit of a blue [argument]. I played early with Arnold. We came into the locker room, and a storm started to brew.
“Anyway, the storm got worse, and the players were called in. Jack was something like eight over par playing the ninth hole. Arnold said, ‘You know what’s going to happen here, don’t you? They’re going to cancel the round because Jack is eight over.’ And just as he said it, Jack walked in behind him and heard him say it.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but when Jack gets nervous or angry, he has a little twitch he does with his chin, and he goes bright red. Well, he did both. And as he walked past, he said, ‘Yeah, Arnold, just like they did for you all those times’.”
Other examples are not hard to find. Not so very long ago, the late Dave Hill and his fellow Champions Tour player, JC Snead, were to be found rolling around on the ground at the end of a practice range in a physical effort to resolve their latest dispute. Former US Ryder Cup player Corey Pavin had an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Golf Channel reporter Jim Gray before last year’s Ryder Cup matches at Celtic Manor in Wales. And it can’t have failed to escape the attention of many golf fans that there is a definite edge to the relationship “enjoyed” by world number two Rory McIlroy and the man right behind him on the rankings, Lee Westwood.
The ladies have their moments too, of course. Just recently, the post-match festivities at the Solheim Cup matches in Ireland were reportedly marked by a loud and quite intense disagreement between US teammates Paula Creamer and the apparently injured Cristie Kerr. And another American, former LPGA player and now NBC commentator Dottie Pepper, is still persona non grata with many of her former colleagues for calling them “choking freaking dogs” in the wake of an earlier Solheim loss to the Europeans.
Then there’s South Africa’s own Rory Sabbatini. He’s a beauty, isn’t he? Earlier this year, the now almost completely Americanised Springbok had to be separated from fellow PGA Tour player Sean O’Hair after the pair had formed different views over the latter’s admittedly funereal pace of play. Sabbatini, of course, has some previous in that department. Few who witnessed it will ever forget the public humiliation of his playing partner, the glacial Ben Crane, during a tournament at Congressional near Washington. While Crane was hitting his approach to the 17th green, Sabbatini was already marching to the next tee, having previously holed out. The point was made.
Further back in time, golf wasn’t any more immune to public and private “frank exchanges of views”. The single-minded and often oblivious Nick Faldo – surprise, surprise – was involved in a few, ranging from his post-round “clyping” on Sandy Lyle and the infamous sticking plaster the Scot applied to his putter to prevent glare from the sun shining in his eyes, to his misguided decision not to offer opponent Graham March a half after his (Faldo’s) ball had clearly been thrown back on to the green by a spectator.
Our own Colin Montgomerie is another high-profile player who has burned a few bridges during his time on tour. In the immediate wake of Monty’s notoriously vague attempt at replacing his ball on the back of that bunker in Jakarta circa 2005, one prominent member of the European Tour hid below the dashboard of his car rather than engage in small-talk with the eight-time European No.1. That same player even now speaks with the Scot only when he has to, a trait in which he is far from alone. Open champion Darren Clarke, for example, has never been slow to conceal his continuing disdain for Monty’s actions.
So let’s not get too excited about “Allenby/Ogilvy-gate.” The sort of thing we saw in Australia has happened before – many times – and it will happen again. Especially if Allenby is involved. As one player who discreetly asked not be named, said only the other day: “Robert is a bit of a plonker. Always has been, always will be. Look at his record in the majors. It is pathetic. But he never blames himself. Everything is always someone else’s fault.”