During the past Ryder Cup, were it not for the zesty uniforms or a tell-tale buenos dias, the casual fan might be excused for no longer seeing much difference between the European pros and their American counterparts.
They all seem to have their retinues of personal trainers, agents and nutritionists. They swing and dress much alike, with the exception of the neon plumage of an Ian Poulter or Jesper Parnevik. They drive the same luxury cars, have similar messy divorces, and whether they be from Denmark or Denver, offer up the same golf clichés in a globalized, TV-ready English that pleases their corporate sponsors.
And none of this should be a big surprise – more Europeans than ever play the U.S. tour, and many, including Ryder members Colin Montgomerie, Luke Donald and Paul Casey, played their college golf in the U.S.
But there’s still one significant cultural divide that is so sensitive an issue, most players simply avoid addressing it when they’re on the other’s turf. Simply put, many Europeans and other international players are put off by the overwhelming number of American PGA Tour players who identify themselves as George Bush-loving, evangelical Christian Republicans who support the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
“Every movie you see, every book you read is like, ‘America, we’re the best country in the world,’” German Alex Cejka told me last May at the Byron Nelson tournament in Fort Worth. “When I hear this [from players] I could throw up. Sure it’s a great country...but you cannot say we have the most powerful president in the world, the biggest country in the world...It’s sad that they are influenced by so much bull----.”
The affable and well-read Australian, Geoff Ogilvy, who won the U.S. Open and has lived in Arizona with his Texas wife for four years, says: “A lot of their conservative views [on tour] are way off the map...I think George Bush is a bit dangerous. I think the world is scared while he’s in office, [but] there’s less tolerance of diversity [in opinions] over here [and] people have more blind faith in their government.”
Various Europeans have hinted that they have similar views, but say privately they’ll be crucified in American locker rooms and newspapers if they publicly oppose Bush, his fundamentalist Christian agenda or the Iraq war.
“That’s the new way of American censorship,” said Parnevik. “People get hurt very badly if they speak out.”
Two years ago, American baseball star Carlos Delgado, who is from Puerto Rico, silently protested the Iraq war by refusing to participate in the ceremonial singing of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning. He was later booed at many stadiums and called “un-American” on radio talk shows. Americans boycotted the Dixie Chicks band when lead singer of the Texas trio, Natalie Maines, told a London audience: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”
While these random comments are just that, they seem to closely mirror the attitudes of other nations toward America, which were exhaustively surveyed in 2005 by the nonpartisan, Washington D.C.-based Pew Research Center. In that study, which surveyed 17,000 people in 16 nations, approval ratings of the U.S. have plummeted since 2002. France sits at 43 percent, Germany and Spain at 41 and Britain at 55 percent. Respondents overwhelmingly blamed the policies of George Bush.
No one is suggesting the world of professional golf is some cauldron of political dissent or that pro golfers anywhere care more about foreign policy than sinking putts. In America, with a few exceptions, most pros seem like friendly apolitical athletes who, if the conversation veers from golf, can talk about football or reality TV, but seem clueless about current events. The famously laid-back, but college-educated Fred Couples, no doubt speaking for many on tour, once told me during the Bill Clinton years that he had never voted in his life, never even registered to vote.
But there is definitely a sizeable and often vocal element among the Americans that follows politics, advocates right-wing Republican policies – tax cuts for the rich, corporate welfare, pro death penalty, anti-gay marriage, anti-labor unions – and increasingly, identifies with evangelical Christian ideology.
In a Sports Illustrated survey of 76 U.S. Tour players published in March, 88 percent said they supported the American invasion of Iraq, and 91 percent supported Bush’s controversial nomination of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court – a judge who was welcomed by Republican and fundamentalist Christian groups as the court’s swing vote in one day outlawing abortion.
This Republican tilt on tour has been documented since at least the Ronald Reagan administration and is so widely accepted as fact that in the presidential election year of 1996, Golf Digest asked me to do a story on tour politics and specifically hunt for any golfer who would actually admit to supporting Clinton. My search only turned up one heretic – former U.S. Open winner Scott Simpson – a free spirit and Christian who has now reversed his thinking and supports Bush, who once famously told a group of Amish farmers: “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.”
Not coincidentally, the American pro golf world, which has been heavily influenced by corporate America and Republican politics for at least 30 years, now has such a strong element of Christian fundamentalists that the entire Ryder Cup leadership – Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin and Loren Roberts – are all self-professed born-again Christians. Roberts was even converted and baptized at a tournament.
In the book, The Way of an Eagle, Lehman says: “God has definitely used golf in a great way over the last several years. I think of myself as a Christian who plays golf, not as a golfer who is a Christian. So whatever kind of job I do, there is a way for God to use that as a tool. In society at large, especially the way golf is growing, there is a huge platform for golfers.”
Perhaps because of his public Christianity and several incidents of less-than-Christ-like behavior, Lehman has developed an unflattering reputation in some golf circles. John Huggan, the European golf correspondent for Golf Digest, recounts how Lehman confronted him angrily when he wrote about Lehman’s much-criticized behavior in 1999 at the Ryder Cup outside Boston, when he led the ghastly American charge of players across the 17th green following Justin Leonard’s miraculous putt.
“How dare you,” Lehman told Huggan. “How dare you sum up my whole character on the basis of that one incident.”
Huggan replied that it was the only negative story he had ever written about Lehman, among many flattering ones, and that his whining was unprofessional.
Some might have thought Huggan just caught Lehman on a bad day. I knew better. Years ago, Lehman, who has never hidden his right-wing politics, once overheard me say the word “Clinton” while I was interviewing a caddie on the driving range of the Texas Open in San Antonio.
Unsmiling, he stopped in mid-stride, walked over and said, “You mean that draft-dodging baby-killer?” and then continued on his way.
There are now official chaplains and weekly Bible study groups, or “fellowships,” on each of the four American pro tours, and various players either display the Christian fish symbol on their golf bag or wear a popular cloth bracelet that says “W.W.J.D” – What Would Jesus Do. “It’s not seen as so strange anymore for a player to be open about his faith,” former tour pro Bobby Clampett told Golf World. “They’re no longer called ‘The God Squad’ or ‘Jesus Freaks’ like we were 20 years ago. Now it’s cool.”
Well, perhaps not everywhere.
David Feherty, the former Euro Ryder Cup member from Northern Ireland and popular TV golf commentator, believes the very public display of fire-and-brimstone Christianity is still unsettling to most Europeans. “I think a lot of Europeans find that conservative Christian thing as frightening as conservative Muslims,” he says. “If you find any European pros that are in that Bible-thumping category, it’s usually because they’ve been to the United States.”
Again, the Pew Research Center studies shed some light. Their 2002 survey of 38,000 people in 44 nations found that more people in the United States (59 percent) said religion was “very important” to them than in any other developed country – vastly more than even heavily Catholic Italy (27 percent) or Poland (36 percent). Feherty, who lives in Bush’s home state of Texas, offered that the Euros shouldn’t be seen as a bunch of “godless heathens” because they don’t advertise their Christianity. “I think they believe it’s your own business. Keep it to yourself.”
But the larger question of why so many American pro golfers – more than football, basketball or baseball players – relate to right-wing Republicans would be fodder for a political science class. When I’ve asked that question of tour players over the last decade, the initial response is a familiar one among the upper class. It goes something like this: “We pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and we don’t like the government giving away our money.”
Or, as American journeyman Robert Gamez told me: “We love our money...Democrats want you to pay for everyone...George Bush is all about family values. Look at us. We’re all into our families. And we believe what Bush stands for. He’s done a great job so far.”
The conventional wisdom for why so many American golf pros vote Republican is that unlike their Euro mates many of them were raised in upper class, homogenized neighborhoods – often gated subdivisions – and learned their golf at private, all-white country clubs. Born from that mentality, the American PGA Tour expressly prohibited blacks from playing in its tournaments until 1961.
In that environment, they were surrounded by like-minded Republicans who shared their love for golf. When the young players arrived on tour they found virtually everything of any value literally handed to them, from Dell laptop computers to new cars, clothing and stock market advice, all happily provided by corporate sponsors who love to associate themselves with the squeaky-clean image of the PGA Tour. It’s an exceptionally privileged life, but they’re happy to remind you that they have no guaranteed contracts like most American sports stars.
From that lap of luxury, with CEOs calling on their cell phones asking for putting advice, it’s not hard to imagine that the American tour pros see their lifestyle being attacked by those less fortunate.
“My taxes are wasted on people who don’t give a damn,” I heard 10 years ago from former ‘93 Ryder Cup member John Cook, who has earned more than $11 million in his career and now lives in the elite Florida community of Isleworth, outside Orlando. Tanned like the California surfer he once was, and imminently likeable, Cook surveyed the typical tournament scene of corporate tents, courtesy Cadillacs and elevator jazz gently wafting from a Four Seasons Hotel and declared without a hint of irony how he was adamantly opposed to raising the U.S. minimum wage.
“I’m the luckiest man alive,” Cook told me, “but I’ve earned my money. I pay my taxes. Liberals are always fighting what this is all about – the corporate boxes, people working hard, not getting something for nothing....I don’t know many liberals.”
And therein lays the problem.
America has become a very polarized place, where people of like religion and politics carefully gather themselves in “right-thinking” communities, schools, churches and workplaces. During Bush’s six years in office this trend has only intensified, with our 50 states now routinely referred to as red for Republican, or blue for Democrat.
“There is a lot of ethnic and racial diversity in the U.S.,” Parnevik told me, pausing to choose his words carefully. Like all the foreign players I spoke to, he has found much to love about Americans and didn’t want to sound unkind.
“But they all seem to hang with each other. Rich with rich. Republican with Republican. In Europe, we seem to have a broader mix of friends.”