An underrated part of following golf is watching forgettable slights build into full-on kerfuffles, and 2017 was chock-full of controversies of all proportions. Let’s run through a (excessively) comprehensive list, by category, of the stories that ruffled feathers this year.
COMMON SENSE vs. INSTITUTIONS
Golf’s best players change year to year, but its stodgy institutions can always be counted on to dish out logic-defying rulings.
6. Attendance issues: Want your kids to play sports, but don’t want to watch them do so? Consider a move to Montana where, as we recently learned, no spectators (including family, friends, or prospective college coaches) are allowed out on the course to watch high school matches.
5. Lunatic fringe: At this Korean LPGA event, nobody could tell the difference between the fringe and the green. As a result, penalties were assigned willy-nilly, the round was ultimately canceled, and the rules official in charge resigned. Oops!
4. One small step for man: This spring the all-male Muirfield membership, among golf’s oldest and stodgiest institutions, voted to allow women to apply to become members. Pretty forward-thinking, right?
Ehh, not so much. The vote only passed after the R&A threatened to pull future Open Championships from the venue.
3. Trophy theft: The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association allowed Emily Nash to compete on her high school boys golf team – but when she won the state sectional tournament, they curiously disallowed her from advancing to states and gave her trophy to the runner-up, who finished four strokes back but had the preferable quality of being a boy.
2. Major letdown: At the LPGA’s Evian Championship, play was suspended Thursday morning, scores were wiped out, and the event was reduced to 54 holes – at a major, mind you! The decision looked particularly silly once players started posting sunny pictures that very afternoon.
1. Fashion police: But the loudest institutional controversy of 2017 came from the LPGA’s announcement of its new dress code. The rules themselves were mostly clarified rather than changed (and with the support of some players), but clunky wording and an awkward rollout meant that any nuance was lost. The story became “golf institution tells women how to dress,” which was bad news for the LPGA’s PR team.
GOLFERS SAYING STUPID STUFF
Honestly, we just wish it would happen more often.
4. Brandel’s brouhahas: Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee seemed to enrage a different high-profile Tour player on a near-weekly basis. From declaring time of death on Tiger’s career to challenging Ian Poulter’s competitiveness to wishing penalties on Jon Rahm and Bernhard Langer, the colorful TV personality had a busy year. And when players like Billy Horschel or Jason Dufner came firing back, nobody emerged looking good.
3. Gotcha golf: In the U.S. Girls Junior Championship, eventual winner Erica Shepherd bested her semifinal opponent in less-than-sporting fashion, telling her, “I didn’t say that was good,” after she’d scooped up a short gimme. This was a bad look – but I’m inclined to give a high schooler a little leeway.
2. Grassy grousing: I’m less inclined, however, to give leeway to Tour players complaining about life being hard. Hopefully the record-low scores at Erin Hills made players feel guilty about their pre-tournament fescue grumblings.
1. Grayson’s gaffes: One of the fiercest battles of the year was staged between the angel on Grayson Murray’s right shoulder and the devil on his left. The incorrigible Tour rookie quit Twitter for a while after tweeting to a, uh, youthful female follower, “I hate the fact you are in high school. You are pretty.” Upon his return, it took less than two weeks before he was in hot water again, this time for asking if anyone really cared about the Champions tour.
Sad news for fans of Grayson’s Twitter game: He’s gone silent since his last apology save for a few requests for First Tee donations accompanied by the hashtag #GraysonGivesBack. Grayson giveth and taketh away, indeed.
PLAYERS WHO GOT PENALIZED FOR STUFF
The integrity of the game lives, thanks to stamping out these menaces to society.
4. Team Turtle: Household names Brian Campbell and Miguel Angel Carballo, playing as a team at the Zurich Classic, got dinged for the Tour’s first slow play penalty in 22 years.
2. Presidential pardon: Jordan Spieth got DQ’ed from a hole at the Presidents Cup for picking up Louis Oosthuizen’s ball as it rolled past the hole. A violation of a useless rule, to be sure, but ultimately a useless controversy, too: Spieth and Patrick Reed won the match 3&2.
1. Off the mark: You know this one by now. Lexi Thompson did a sketchy job of marking her ball in the third round of April’s ANA Inspiration and was penalized four shots in the middle of the next day’s final round after a reader email tipped off officials. Try explaining THAT sequence of events to your non-golfing friends.
Lexi rallied on the back nine but went on to lose in a playoff.
PLAYERS WHO ALMOST GOT PENALIZED FOR STUFF
It’s far better for a golfer’s public image to get penalized for something silly and become a martyr than to escape penalty and have your character called into question. Take these near-misses:
4. Game of inches: Jon Rahm committed essentially the same penalty that cost Thompson four shots, but escaped punishment and went on to win the Irish Open by six shots. Whether or not Rahm intended to move his ball closer to the hole, he’s sure to face rules scrutiny going forward.
3. Hovering hand: “Controversy” and “Champions tour” aren’t frequently paired, but accusations of anchoring, which has been essentially deemed a PED for long-putter operators, distracted from Bernhard Langer’s dominant season. Want to lose friends? Start debating the differences between hovering and anchoring on the Champions tour – bonus points if you get into the nitty-gritty of shirt bagginess.
2. Dial up, dial out: The USGA announced that it will no longer take viewer input on penalties, which is actually HORRIBLE news for fans of golf controversy. From Lexi and Tiger on down, some of the most-discussed golf moments of recent years have come from the hawk-eyed homebodies eager to call their local USGA office to report an infraction.
1. Augusta Rational: It was nearly the penalty that changed the entire season when Sergio Garcia, in trouble on the 13th hole at the Masters, moved some loose impediments – and may have jostled his ball in the process. Cooler heads prevailed, and the evidence was deemed insufficient to penalize El Nino, who more than delivered down the stretch.
PLAYERS VS. GOLF COURSES
2017 became the year that every fan suddenly needed to have a strong opinion on golf ball composition.
3. JT vs. Gil Hanse: In a showdown pitting the player of the year vs. the architect of the year, Justin Thomas scorned Gil Hanse’s redesigned 12th hole at TPC Boston. In a big middle finger to the big-name architect, Thomas ripped driver over the trees and down No. 13 three out of the four days, and it obviously worked: he won the event. We’ll see if Hanse plants some trees to JT-proof the Dell next year.
2. Amateur architects: Players and fans alike did NOT appreciate it when Dustin Johnson hit driver over the water on the first playoff hole at Glen Oaks, leaving him 79 yards closer than Jordan Spieth. Ian Poulter and Wesley Bryan called the hole a “shame,” and Kevin Kisner was even clearer: “Worst hole ever.”
1. Ball busters: Does the golf ball fly too far? We’ve heard a million takes on this by now, but the battle intensified when Tiger Woods chimed in, not to mention the CEOs from Titleist and Bridgestone plus Mike Davis, the head of the USGA. And nothing has even happened yet!
This is the ultimate case of everyone having a problem and nobody having a solution – so stay tuned to see if we’re getting closer to the 10,000-yard golf course or the marshmallow golf ball.
Happily for them, most of the involved parties should have no problem affording strong legal counsel.
4. Vijay Singh vs. PGA Tour. Yes, Vijay Singh is STILL suing the PGA Tour, as he has been for about four years, over a 90-day deer antler spray suspension. At this point it smells a lot like an ego showdown, but stay tuned: this yawner is still slated to go to jury trial.
3. Phil Mickelson vs. the FBI: Take notes, Vijay: the public forgets pretty much everything. One of the most famous golfers of all time was caught up in a massive insider trading scandal with a big-time Las Vegas gambler, but because no new news has emerged, Phil’s legal gymnastics all but vanished from golf’s collective consciousness in just months.
2. Costco vs. Acushnet, PXG vs. TaylorMade: A young industry disruptor (Kirkland) staging a coup against the golf ball king (Titleist)? Throw in the ongoing lawsuit ping-pong match between new-money PXG and establishment power TaylorMade and you’ve got a golf industry Game of Thrones.
1. Tiger Woods vs. Palm Beach County: Before we became distracted by stinger videos and Hero World Challenge fist pumps, much of the world first saw the mugshot, then the crime scene photos and then the dashcam interviews. Going forward, here’s hoping we see more of the former and none of the latter.
TRUMP VS. THE HATERS
When the sitting U.S. president spends a majority of weekends at golf properties that he owns, the game inevitably becomes more political. Some memorable clashes:
5. Accounting questions: Was Trump’s round of 73 presidential propaganda or proof of his athletic prowess? Lindsey Graham gave extensive testimony, but that did little to convince more skeptical corners of the Internet.
4. Deadly accuracy: Remember when the president of the United States retweeted a video of him hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball? It was an apt, if tasteless, summary of a bizarre year in golf and politics.
3. Political pairings: Several pros faced scrutiny and criticism for playing golf with Trump, including Tiger, Rory, D.J., Ernie Els, and Jack Nicklaus – any of which would have killed on pay-per-view.
2. What protests? Peter Malnati wrote an impassioned post in response to Trump calling for anthem protestors to be fired – which made him nearly unique in the golf world, where the silence was deafening.
1. Trump vs. GOLF.com: Buried in a fantastic piece of award-winning reporting on President Trump was one nugget in which the president referred to the White House as “a dump.” In a denial, the president called this esteemed publication “fake news.”
I love the White House, one of the most beautiful buildings (homes) I have ever seen. But Fake News said I called it a dump – TOTALLY UNTRUE
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2017
Then again, he’d already sent the below tweet in 2014, which we think rings far truer.
.@GolfMagazine is great, thanks!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 9, 2014