Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lobster Boy

I remember when I was a teenager and the carnival came to town…I was maybe 18 at the time. Me and my girlfriend went and rode the rides, ate the carnival food and generally had a good time. Then our eyes caught a sign on the side of a tent - SEE THE AMAZING LOBSTER BOY - HALF MAN HALF LOBSTER! ONLY ONE DOLLAR!

Well, our curiosity got the best of us. I plunked down two bucks and we went inside the tent. And there sat a pitiable creature - a middle aged man who was born with a deformity. Instead of having a full set of fingers and toes, his hands and feet consisted of fused-together fingers and toes that, well, resembled a lobster. Thus the promotion. This poor man that life kicked in the teeth gave his canned speech about how he was born that way, that he is married and has three healthy kids. We were transfixed for about 30 seconds and then we had to get the hell out of there. He was, literally, a circus sideshow freak.

John Daly is the PGA Tour’s version of Lobster Boy.

Not that he was born with a deformity or had a raw deal tossed at him by life. But rather, because of what he has become on the tour. Big John burst on the golfing scene in 1991 when, as the ninth alternate, drove all night from Arkansas to Indiana to tee it up in the PGA Championship. Never having seen the course before, he relied on his caddy to give him yardages, bombed his prodigious drives past all the trouble, and ended up winning by three shots. A folk hero was born. Four years later he repeated the feat at the British Open, defeating Costantino Rocca in a playoff at, of all places, St. Andrews. Four years on the tour and he had already secured two major championships. He was a freak - far longer off the tee than anyone on the tour but also with a velvety putting stroke and solid short game. He added three other wins on tour to validate the major wins. He had talent.

But John was also a train wreck - four marriages, wrecked hotel rooms, alcoholism, domestic scuffles, suspensions from the tour, compulsive gambling, inexplicable blow-ups on the course, disqualifications, a reality show on the Golf Channel, weight issues, chain-smoking, lap-band surgery, hideous pants, hitting balls off of beer cans, hitting shots over horrified spectator's heads. Ironically, this just more endeared him to his legion of fans that saw him as the anti-establishment rebel that just grips it and rips it, finds it and rips it again. He brought the ‘Bubba Element’ to tour galleries - fans that couldn’t give a rip about whether he won…let alone compete. They just wanted to see him take out driver on every tee and bomb it. And he did. He would then shoot 77-81 and miss the cut by a mile…if he didn’t walk off the course first after purposely violating some rule or by pumping five balls into a lake.

Which is exactly what he did last week at the Australian Open. Five consecutive shots into a lake, trying to reach a par-5 in two. At last count he was hitting twelve when he decided that he could not finish, and walked off the course. He said it was because he ran out of golf balls. Well no shit if you're going Tin Cup on the twelfth hole when you know you have six more holes to play. It was a lame excuse that reflect lame behavior.

When the PGA Tour holds an event, the field of players is filled through a number of methods: Certain players are exempt, in other words, they are automatically invited, via their recent performances. This would include winners of recent tour events, the defending champion, the top 50 on the money list and so on. Then there are the ones that have to play their way in - these are called Monday Qualifiers - players that show up on Monday morning with maybe 4 slots to play for. The last group is what are called Sponsor’s Exemptions. This is a small group of freebie invitations doled out at the discretion of the sponsor of the event - they are usually used for local phenoms, maybe the head club pro at the host course. Anyone who can increase the paid attendance thus boosting the gate.

It is these Sponsor’s Exemptions that Daly lives off of. Daly last won a tour event in 2004. Once in a blue moon his name appears on the leader board, only to quickly vanish when the obligatory blowup occurs. He is not exempt from anything anymore, as he is ranked 666th in the world.

But sponsors love him. He increases the gate. He brings the Bubbas in.

In 2007 I served as a volunteer at the Ginn Sur Mer Classic in Port St. Lucie, Florida. A fringe PGA Tour event held in October, after the Tour Championship and thus after the ‘serious’ golf is done for the year. My job at that event was as a Marshal at the 16th tee - to keep the crowds quiet while a player was teeing off, and so on. The galleries were small; even the leaders couldn’t draw more than perhaps a hundred spectators. Then Daly’s group arrived. Five times the size of anyone else’s gallery. Fortified with, ahem, beverages, they whooped it up for their man…even though their man was on his way to missing the cut.

So why is this so bad? What’s wrong with letting a sponsor toss Daly an exemption so people can get excited about him being in the field?

Well, nothing, other than integrity and professionalism. Every other golfer on the planet has to earn their way into events. Every other player has to perform to maintain their exempt status. Thousands of players that were once good have seen their skills erode to the point that they can no longer compete on the PGA Tour, thus you no longer see them there. Not John. He gets a pass on his behavior and on the state of his game. He is doled out sponsors exemptions when other far more deserving players are Monday Qualifying.

His role has been marginalized down to suiting just one element - the morbidly curious. A two-time major winner, whose only redeeming value left to golf is to slake the thirst of those that cheer wrecks in NASCAR.

He is Lobster Boy.

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