For the channel surfer with an appreciation of the sublimely bad
in television, last weekend's Isuzu Celebrity Golf Championship
was a pure gem of trashsport.
Staged on a golf course framed by casinos, in Stateline, Nev.,
last Friday's first round gave us the semiluminous patchwork of
Bryant Gumbel, Joe Namath and Tom Dreesen shooting 82s, while
the Dadaistic threesome of Smokey Robinson, Dan Quayle and
Charles Barkley all raced home in 89. For sheer camp it
approached Joe Frazier's nearly drowning in three feet of water
during the swimming competition on the first Superstars.
Like most creations of its genre, this year's edition of the
Celebrity Golf Championship suffered from an inherent problem,
known among trashsport devotees as the Kyle Rote Jr. syndrome
(after the zero-charisma, three-time winner of the Superstars).
The best players in the field (Al Del Greco, Jack Marin and
winner Rick Rhoden) placed an enormous strain on the word
celebrity, while the best playing celebrities (Michael Jordan,
John Elway, Mike Schmidt and Mario Lemieux) all strained to be
And yet, this was an event in its fifth year on a major network,
with a $400,000 purse. The anchor of a seven-event Celebrity
Golf Association tour, it has television ratings competitive
with and on occasion higher than the PGA Tour event it is pitted
against. It has already outlived the average lifespan of a
trashsport event, which suggests that it is not so much about
celebrity at all.
No, what the Celebrity Golf Championship is really about, with
apologies to purists who consider the Skins Game akin to
pornography, is golf. As much as it might offend the lofty
captains of the USGA and the R&A, there is hardly a better
endorsement of golf as the greatest game of all than the CGA.
In the last decade golf has become one of the strongest common
bonds among the most famous athletes of their day. These are men
with the leisure, the money and the ability to choose any sport
or pastime to satiate their considerable appetites for
competition. In disproportionate numbers, they have chosen golf.
Some of the reasons are obvious. At its most basic level, golf
makes the same sense for a professional or ex-professional
athlete as it does for the average hacker. It offers a low risk
of injury, doesn't require a lot of conditioning, can be played
well into old age and is a natural to share with friends.
Besides, it's fun to watch the ball fly through the air.
The more than 50 athletes who compete regularly on the CGA tour,
however, have not just chosen hit-and-giggle golf but rather the
putt-everything-out, follow-the-rules, choke-athon variety.
It's a test that provides a powerful attraction for an
individual whose identity has been shaped by competition. Strip
away those qualities that are essentially a given at the top
level of any sport--skill and conditioning--and you are left with
the essential core, the mental game.
All else being equal, mental skills determine winning and
losing. Golf tends to appeal to the greatest athletes because,
along with its aesthetics, it puts a premium on mental skills.
It is no accident that Jordan, the on-court master of allowing
his mind to make his body do what it needs to do when the
pressure is most paralyzing, is obsessed with the game.
"In golf there is no comfort zone,'' St. Louis Ram quarterback
Mark Rypien, winner of the inaugural Celebrity Golf Championship
in 1990, said in trying to explain the allure. "Every shot,
every putt, is a bundle of nerves. But I still love it.''
Conversely, the CGA provides the best argument that professional
golfers are indeed athletes. More than 80% of the CGA
participants carry a handicap of five or better, suggesting that
when professional athletes channel their skills toward golf (as
Elway has over the last three years in dramatically improving
his handicap from a seven to a one), they are superior to
nonathletes simply because the skills of coordination and
strength, and the ability to perform under stress will always be
valuable tools at the highest levels of the game.
Perhaps the key to the Celebrity Golf Championship's success is
that the attraction of watching current and former pro athletes
play golf pretty well isn't that different from watching
professional golfers play it superbly. These are special
athletes, applying their talents to a special game. It might be
trashsport, but golf never had a better commercial.