Recent incidents show the dynamic may be changing

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Bryson DeChambeau (left) and Phil Mickelson (right) found themselves in the middle of rare controversies involving PGA Tour players and the media during the Rocket Mortgage Classic earlier this month. [Times-Union file]

The relationship between PGA Tour players and the media has historically been among the best in any sport, rivaled perhaps only by NASCAR. 

That’s why it was a shock to the symbiotic system in early July when Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau, two of the Tour’s biggest stars, had dust-ups with the media during the same tournament. 

Of course, there have been occasional sniping and griping over the years. Both the athletes and the media members who cover them are human beings. Not everyone has their best day. 

Tour players hit shots in the water, three-putt and make double-bogeys. Reporters get chewed out by editors for missing a deadline, can’t find a good wireless connection at their hotel and miss the free breakfast buffet at the tournament site because the shuttle from the parking lot was running late. 

No one is always in a good mood. But Tour stars and the media have usually co-existed with little trouble.

The decline of traditional golf coverage and social media may be changing that.

Double trouble in Detroit

To recap the double-hit at the Rocket Mortgage Classic: 

Mickelson, who was playing in Detroit for the first time since the 2008 PGA Championship, took offense at an article written that week by a Detroit News reporter (not a sportswriter) that dredged up a fact that had never been reported before – Mickelson placed some rather large bets around 20 years ago with a bookie who had ties to the Detroit mob, “Dandy” Don DeSerrano. 

“Dandy” Don was working as a casino host at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. Part of his job was handling bets for high rollers. He took some action for Mickelson and when Mickelson won, DeSerrano stiffed him for a reported $500,000. 

DeSerrano admitted to fleecing Mickelson while testifying under immunity during the 2007 racketeering trial of reputed Detroit Mob leader Jack Giacalone.

Jack Giacalone was acquitted in that trial but currently is in legal trouble over back taxes totaling more than $537,000. The transcript of DeSerrano’s testimony regarding Mickelson was only recently unearthed when the Detroit News reporter was examining the court file on the current case. 

Mickelson said the story was factual but threatened to not play in Detroit again, although Rocket Mortgage Classic tournament sponsors, organizers and fans had nothing to do with the article – nor does the Detroit News sponsor the event in any way. 

Mickelson said the timing of the story was meant to embarrass him and implied that he and other Tour players might plan their tournament schedules depending on favorable media coverage. 

“It’s hard for me or somebody to come in and bring other people and bring other entities involved to help put, because you’re constantly being torn down as opposed to brought together and built up,” Mickelson said. 

Mickelson backtracked a bit the next day after hearing of fans who started a petition drive to urge him to play the tournament again. Mickelson also asked fans who signed the petition to “perform a random act of kindness” and seemed to indicate he would return in the future on his Twitter feed.

“This was pure Mickelson,” wrote veteran golf journalist John Feinstein. “A petulant outburst followed by scrambling to be the good guy in the eyes of the public. You can bet most of the public will buy in.” 

It did, with Mickelson using his Twitter feed to criticize the media further – backed by thousands of “likes” and re-tweets from among his nearly 750,000 followers.

DeChambeau’s issue was simpler. He was the defending Rocket Mortgage champion and did pre-tournament media interviews and appearances with the sponsor – who also is one of his sponsors. 

But after missing the cut, DeChambeau refused to speak to the media. Players decline post-round interviews infrequently but there are some unwritten rules: defending champions are expected to talk to the media, if just for a few minutes, whenever requested during the week of the tournament. 

The fact that Rocket Mortgage is one of his sponsors made the situation more awkward. Mitigating DeChambeau’s stance a bit is that he split with caddie Tim Tucker a day before the first round.

DeChambeau wasn’t questioned directly about ditching the interview request after his second round in Detroit when he appeared at a British Open news conference at Royal St. George’s on Tuesday.

But he did not he’s not intentionally seeking out controversy.

“Everybody is human. I’m definitely human,” he said. “We all make mistakes and things happen. We have emotion. And I think that sometimes people objectify us big players at the top of the game too much and they don’t realize that we are human and we make mistakes and things happen.”

“That’s life, unfortunately,” he continued. “Us as professionals, we have to be on top of it all the time. Unfortunately it just doesn’t come out the right way sometimes or happen the way you want it to, and we make mistakes.”

What made both situations even more stunning is that Mickelson and DeChambeau historically have had good relations with the media. 

“Mickelson and DeChambeau are usually better in their approach to media than they showed,” wrote Golfweek columnist Eamon Lynch. 

Lynch also took note that any problems Mickelson and DeChambeau had with the media didn’t keep them from playing in the exhibition match on July 6 with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, nationally televised and with plenty of product placement. 

“It’s a hit and giggle of little consequence, but it will illustrate a prevailing attitude toward the press,” Lynch wrote. “Media that applaud and help sling product are good, media that pose awkward questions are bad.” 

The two incidents would be rare if they happened within a month. To happen the same week of a PGA Tour event is astounding. 

How it works 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was fairly easy for reporters to talk to players. The locker room and practice areas were open (with some exceptions, at majors and tournaments such as the Memorial) and PGA Tour communications officials regularly set up as many as a dozen interviews during practice-round days. 

In the early days of the PGA Tour and major championships, players often did the interviews in front of their lockers, in a clubhouse lounge or simply off the 18th tee. 

There are some unwritten guidelines: reporters can always count on a session with the defending champion, the previous week’s winner (if he was entered), any major champions of The Players winner that season who were entered, and the current FedEx Cup points leader. 

If a reporter is unable to catch up to a player, the Tour staff will call his cell phone, leave notes in his locker. The golf media also have a list of agents and can go that route. 

Reporters who are unable to be at a tournament site can obtain transcripts of interviews, although some of the best insights from players are usually gleaned during “scrums” — reporters asking a few more questions from players after the formal interview session, or walking with the player to the locker room, practice area or parking lot. 

Much of the spirit of cooperation between the golf media and players was rooted in the relationship that Jack Nicklaus (left) and Arnold Palmer had with reporters.

Once a tournament begins, players are requested after their rounds and Tour staff deliver those requests to the players while they are in the scoring area. The vast majority of players will comply. 

The pandemic has changed the process in the past 18 months. While the Tour has relaxed some protocols, interviews are still being done via teleconferences using platforms such as Zoom. Locker rooms and practice areas have been closed since the Tour resumed golf more than a year ago and one-on-ones have to be arranged in advance.

DeChambeau’s refusal to talk after the second round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic sparked a social media debate among fans as to the value of post-round interviews. Predictably, most fans took the side of the player and some pointed out that those interviews were frequently drab and boring, with quotes no more scintillating than “At No. 14 I hit driver, 8-iron and two-putted from 25 feet.” 

Perhaps, but reporters still can’t throw their hands up and not try. After all, deep, emotional, searing moments have often emerged from post-round interviews: Greg Norman’s honesty after blowing a six-shot lead in the 1996 Masters; Len Mattiace’s willingness to face the music after the 1998 Players and 2003 Masters, baring his soul in each case; the tears and smiles of joy from Adam Scott after winning the 2013 Masters and Bubba Watson after he won at Augusta in 2010; and Mickelson’s “I’m such an idiot” moment after he doubled the final hole to lose the 2006 U.S. Open. 

But as Mickelson proved in the aftermath of his controversy in Detroit, he can take his case to his fans through social media. Tiger Woods was the real pioneer in this regard and took to announcing his schedule on his Twitter feed, as well as other news involving his foundation or progress in recovering from his numerous injuries in the past decade.

The downside to that is that players can simply ignore issues on which they don’t want to comment, or take the opportunity to attack the media when negative news surfaces. In other words, fans will get only their side of the story.

How it doesn’t work 

Here are other notable players who have had difficult moments with the media: 

Vijay Singh 

The World Golf Hall of Fame member has always kept the media at arms’ length and his explanation carries some merit. 

There’s hardly been an in-depth print or TV piece on Singh that didn’t mention an incident in 1985 at a tournament in Indonesia. He was suspended by the Southeast Asia Golf Federation but Singh has disputed the facts without getting specific. 

Vijay Singh has had a long and contentious relationship with the media, but when he has agreed to news conferences and interviews, he has usually been witty, thoughtful and eager to talk about his game.

Here’s why Singh has a point: In the 36 years since then, a period of time in which he has won three major championships and 64 worldwide titles, his reputation for playing by the rules has been impeccable. 

Why then, does the media bring up an incident that is nearly four decades old? 

It’s a good question. Still, the incident lingers and as a result, Singh is wary and cautious. He has never felt the need to launch a charm offensive.

Singh appears in media centers only when he is leading a tournament and consents to very few other media availabilities … which is a shame because when he is in a relaxed mood, Singh has proven to be insightful and even witty. 

A select few reporters who Singh did speak to at times learned that when the subject stayed with golf, he was more than eager to talk about his game and the work he has put into his Hall of Fame career. 

It didn’t help that Singh became embroiled in another controversy in 2013 when he admitted in a Sports Illustrated article that he used “Deer Antler Spray,” a substance that he didn’t know was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency — which the Tour used. 

Singh was suspended by former Tour commissioner Tim Finchem but was allowed to keep playing while he appealed. 

When WADA took the substance off its banned list, Singh was reinstated. However, he sued the Tour for damage to his reputation and the parties settled in 2018, with the Tour making a statement that it believes Singh never intended to gain a competitive advantage by using the spray. 

John Daly 

Full disclosure: Daly’s most controversial brush with the media was with this reporter in 2010. 

After Daly unsuccessfully sued the Times-Union for defamation, his PGA Tour disciplinary file became public record as part of the court file. It was available to anyone who filed a records request. 

John Daly has long been a fan and media favorite, despite his numerous brushes with the PGA Tour over professional conduct issues.

Most of what was in the file had already been reported and the news was in the details: Daly had been hit with five suspensions, 21 reprimands and close to $100,000 in fines by the Tour mostly under the “conduct unbecoming a professional” clause that gives the commissioner wide latitude.

His file ran 456 pages, covering an 18-year period.

Attempts had been made to reach Daly for comment for two weeks before the publication of the story by contacting his representation. The reporter’s cell phone number was left as part of those attempts. 

Daly never returned the messages. Instead, he posted the cell phone number on Twitter and encouraged his fans to “flood his line and let’s tell him how we feel.” 

Around 100 calls were made to the number, and if messages were left, they were along the lines of: “leave John alone.” A few were ominous and one caller threatened the reporter’s family and gave indications he knew how many children he had. 

Vartan Kupelian, president of the Golf Writers Association of America at the time, asked Finchem to discipline Daly and publicly apologize. 

“This is unacceptable on several levels and clearly falls into the category of unprofessional and totally unwarranted behavior,” Kupelian wrote. 

The Tour wasn’t required to release any action taken against Daly for any reason after the court case was closed and to this day, it’s unknown whether Daly was reprimanded or otherwise disciplined. Daly also has never apologized. 

Tiger Woods 

Cards on the table with the best player since Jack Nicklaus: he’s never had enough hours in the day to do every interview request, let alone sign every autograph, pose for every picture and still put in enough work on the game that has resulted in a tie with Sam Snead for the most PGA Tour victories (82) and is second to Nicklaus with the most major championships (15). 

But while he was mentored by media-friendly players such as Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Fred Couples, Woods has been called aloof, distant, smug and boring in media sessions. He doesn’t dazzle anyone with Fuzzy Zoeller humor, Palmer charm or Nicklaus’ keen insight into the game. 

Jack Nicklaus (left) has been a mentor to Tiger Woods (right) in most areas, especially in regards to dealing with the media.

But really, how many other players do? 

Woods’ media availabilities are strictly controlled but generally, he has consented to interviews after each round and when he is the defending champion — a status he has enjoyed more than anyone in history save for Snead.

One influence Nicklaus had on Woods was when he told him early in his career that when the media wanted to talk to him whether he shot 65 or 75, it was a compliment. 

And Woods’ most controversial period in his career, when it was revealed that he had numerous affairs with women ranging from waitresses to porn stars, was news broken by and large by tabloids such as the National Enquirer — who weren’t getting any alone time with Woods anyway. 

Unconstrained by the ethics by which most media outlets are bound, the tabloids threw a lot on the walls and much of it stuck, since the publications had no qualms about paying sources.

Prior to his car accident in February, Woods had begun to open up more with the media, which reached a peak when he won the 2019 Masters. His joy in winning his 15th major with his two children watching was clearly evident. 

All due respect to players such as Nicklaus, Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Snead, they didn’t have to conduct their careers under the burning glare of social media, with their every move, off-hand remark or private moment subjected to Internet scrutiny. 

Woods doesn’t make a move or a comment on a golf course without it becoming immediate news. That’s a tough burden, no matter how much fame and fortunate an athlete has achieved.

Tales from the media room 

Some of the most poignant and humorous moments in PGA Tour player-media relations: 

Grace in a time of tragedy: Nicklaus is the gold standard for relations with the media. He fills tape recorders and notebooks with quotes, anecdotes and opinions, and has since he burst on the scene in 1961. 

But there was a time when no one expected Nicklaus to talk, and no one expected it.

He did, however. 

In March of 2005, the horrific news broke that one of Nicklaus’ grandchildren, 17-month-old Jake Walter Nicklaus, had drowned in a hot tub at the Palm Beach home of Nicklaus’ son Steve. The Tour was playing at Doral that week and in Palm Beach Gardens the next week and Nicklaus had scheduled a news conference in between to go over plans for a renovation project at a course in Jupiter. 

Jack Nickalus has been perhaps the most accommodating athlete with the media since his playing career began in 1961.

Golf media covering Doral assumed the news conference would be canceled. But Nicklaus’ media relations staff began contacting them and told them Nicklaus wanted to go ahead with the news conference and encouraged them to attend. 

He also said at the outset that he would answer any questions about his grandson’s death. It was an emotional scene in which there wasn’t a dry eye in the room – and when it was over, every reporter went up to Nicklaus for a handshake and in the case of many he knew well, a hug. 

“Unbelievable,” one reporter said. “There’s never been a class act like Jack.” 

Hogan’s impatience: Ben Hogan was one of the players who displayed some impatience with the banality of questions he received.  

After hearing one too many, “what did you hit into No. 15?” Hogan once replied: “one of these days, a deaf-mute is going to win a tournament and you guys won’t know what to write.” 

Don’t age Tommy Bolt: Don’t think players don’t read what is written about them. When covering a tournament that Tommy Bolt was leading, legendary golf writer Dan Jenkins mistakenly wrote that Bolt was 49 years old, instead of 39. 

Bolt charged into the media center and tore into Jenkins, who said, “Tommy, I’m worry … it was a typographical error.” 

Bolt replied: “Bull—- … it was a perfect 4 and a perfect 9.” 

Payne Stewart’s honest truth: Under the old money list system, the final Tour event for players to get into the top-125 to keep their cards for the next season was the Disney World Classic. A reporter was talking to veteran players about the last time they had to grind in the final week to make the cut, salvage a top-25 or a top-10 to stay eligible. 

Payne Stewart, who won the first of his 11 titles as a PGA Tour rookie in 1982, never had to worry about that late-season grind. When asked if he had empathy for those players, Stewart started out by saying he did feel for them and was glad he never had to go through that kind of stress. 

He then stopped himself and blurted out, “Aw, the hell with them … they should have played better in May.” 

Mediate’s testing idea: Rocco Mediate was another player who was brutally honest. When the PGA Tour was considering its drug testing protocols in 2008, many in the media asked players for their input. Some of the responses centered on the expense of the program. 

Mediate had an answer for that. 

“Just test Tiger,” he said. “If he’s not on anything, who cares about the rest of us? We’re not beating him anyway.”

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