News & Opinion

Justin Thomas incident puts all golfers on notice

Justin Thomas at 2020 US Open
Justin Thomas realizes now, more than ever, that as one of golf’s elite players, he is certain to attract cameras and microphones on the course.

PGA Tour could remove on-course microphones to protect players and viewers, but there’s a better way for pros and amateurs alike

The recently retired Philip Rivers, who played quarterback for the Chargers and Colts in his 17-year career, was one of the NFL’s most prolific trash talkers. Yet, not once did he use a swear word or anything else offensive when yapping at opposing players. There were many uses of “dadgumit,” “goodness gracious” and “horse mess” in his vocabulary. Not because he’s some kind of righteous person but because that’s just who he is.

Which brings us to the regrettable Justin Thomas episode, in which he spewed a homophobic slur in reaction to a missed 5-footer at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He owned his offensive misdeed, apologized the right way and hoped that we all could move on.

But words matter and actions have consequences as clothier Ralph Lauren terminated the company’s endorsement contract with Thomas. As a result, it’s been reported that Thomas will undergo some kind of undisclosed sensitivity training. If he really wanted to make amends, he could do something tangible – not just write a check – for the community that he hurt.

At this point, the deed has been done, the fallout was considerable and the conversation wide-ranging. Now, we need to look at solutions, and we have two that are obvious: one, no more microphones on the course that can pick up what players say; and the other, that touring professionals should clean up their language.

Which solution you choose largely depends on whom you think needs to be protected more: the players or the public.

Professional golfers probably have been swearing on the course ever since swear words were invented. Everyone who plays knows the game can drive you to say things that you wouldn’t utter in polite conversation.

And from the time the PGA Tour was established, professional golfers have been fined for doing so. An apocryphal story about the late Tommy Bolt, who was prone to eruptions, says that after a tournament round, he was summoned to the office and informed that he would be fined $200 because two women heard him curse twice.

“Take me to them,” Bolt is to have said to a rules official. They rode out to where the women were seated, and Bolt peeled off $400 and handed it to the official, who said the fine was only $200.

“No,” Bolt said, looking at the women. “F*** you and f*** you.”

Of course, such a thing couldn’t happen on today’s tour without some real ramifications. Years ago, when Thursday rounds were first being telecast, Curtis Strange was fined because the microphones caught him swearing. He said, “If you can’t get by with a mother*****r on Thursday, what’s this tour come to?”

Tiger Woods is probably the most fined player ever for swearing on the PGA Tour, because he always has been prone to littering the landscape with f-bombs. However, if there were no microphones, no harm, no foul.

Or would it? If you were attending the Sentry Tournament of Champions in person with your child and heard Thomas’ invective, how would you explain it to him or her? It was a mistake, and everyone is entitled to mistakes? And what would you do if, at some point afterward, you heard your child utter that word and then have the kid say, Well, it’s just a mistake?

And what if a player or caddie in Thomas’ group was gay or had a sibling or a friend who was? How do you measure the amount of harm that does?

Look, I’m no prude. I’ve had more than my share of profane explosions. So, I’m not exempt. But a few years ago, I was paired with the longtime pro at the club where I play, and I had never heard him utter a swear word. Because I had so much respect for him and I didn’t want to offend, I watched my language that day. And as a result, “Dang it, Mike,” is about the worst thing I say on the golf course, even after three bogeys in a row.

But I’m not as pure as the driven snow. In private conversations with friends, the occasional epithet will be spewed. But in public, in the company of others whom I might offend, I maintain a tight lid on what I say.

So, garden-variety profanity and homophobic slurs are not a necessary part of the fabric of our game. Touring professionals certainly could stand to watch comes out of their mouths inside the ropes. Because social media apparently has given us permission to say whatever we want, whenever we want and to whomever we want without repercussions, we’ve descended down this profane trail where bad language has become acceptable, without a second thought.

Thomas, by all accounts, is a fine young man. The cynics among us would say he’s undergoing this sensitivity training to protect his financial interests with his remaining sponsors. And that’s certainly a consideration.

However, Thomas seems genuinely contrite when he says, “I need to be better.” He’s right. But so does every other player on the professional tours. And the rest of us, as well.

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