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The Loop

Pete Willett is the least boring part of this Ryder Cup, and for that we should be grateful

September 29, 2016

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As you're probably aware by now, Danny Willett's schoolteacher brother Pete launched a vicious broadside against America and all its many citizens in National Club Golfer yesterday, and it caused quite a stir. Willett pulled no punches, as you can see from paragraphs like these:

They need to silence the pudgy, basement-dwelling, irritants, stuffed on cookie dough and pissy beer, pausing between mouthfuls of hotdog so they can scream ‘Baba booey’ until their jelly faces turn red.

Now, as Sam Weinman correctly pointed out yesterday, Willett absolutely placed the world's largest target on his brother's back. It's going to be a miserable weekend for young Danny, who will have to face the music for his brother's unkind words while Pete himself is back in England laughing behind a computer screen. From my perspective, that is by far the most objectionable part about his rant—the accidental (I think?) betrayal of his own kin. Great work, Pete!


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But as for the anti-American content? Everybody needs to calm wayyyyyy down, because Pete Willett is hilarious. How could you read his words and not laugh, even if they stung a bit? There was a lot of hand-wringing yesterday about whether what he wrote was "satire," but that dialogue betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of both Willett's intentions and British humor in general. I won't attempt to characterize the comedy of an entire nation in this one blog post, since there is a broad and diverse spectrum of styles, but I will say that as a devoted fan of the island's comedic exports, I know that they love the fine art of the insult. Sometimes it's a form of aggression, and sometimes it's a strange form of affection, but by and large the approach to being funny in England entails far more irreverence than many Americans are familiar or comfortable with.

Willett's diatribe was not "satire," at least in any strict sense. Instead, I would call it "hyperbole." By attacking American fans with such rhetorical fury, Willett was going for the shock effect, and he obviously succeeded. The key to the anger-inducing post was that it built its castle of biting rage on a foundation of truth—America does have an obesity problem, for instance—and never winked at the average reader, who might have been expecting Willett to pull back at some point, or at least to offer a kind of "just kidding!" consolation.

That was not happening. Nevertheless, Willett had entered into an unspoken pact with the American reader of his imagination, and that pact looked something like this: I'm going to shit-talk you in the most vicious fashion, and you're going to accept it because those are the terms of engagement, but deep down you know I despise you much less than I'm letting on, I'm not actually being hostile, and this is all part of a game. A confrontational game, admittedly, but a game nonetheless.

Clearly, most Americans didn't enter the discussion on Willett's level. The reactions showed that, quite to the contrary, it inspired controversy and anger more than any kind of appreciation. Davis Love III had to consciously avoid the article in order to stay calm ("If I read it, I'm just going to get mad. If I read it, I'm just going to get defensive."), and this is a man whose emotional thermometer has rarely risen above the temperature of lukewarm water. Darren Clarke was outspoken against it, and even took it upon himself to take up the issue with Danny Willett himself:

"I spoke to Danny about it. I showed it to Danny. And he's bitterly disappointed in his brother's article. It is not what Danny thinks. It is not what I think. It is not what Team Europe stands for."

"So Danny was unaware of it, and he fully intends to speak to his brother whenever he comes in and tell him, express his displeasure to his brother about it, because that is not what Team Europe stands for."

"Bitterly disappointed"? Guys, it was a joke! Lighten up! But no—Clarke had to apologize to Davis Love, Danny Willett had to apologize to the Golf Channel, and etc. etc.

The truth is, the run-up to this Ryder Cup has been tremendously boring in comparison to years past. Aside from Phil Mickelson's surprise attack on Hal Sutton, of all people, it's just been one bland interview after another. That comes as no shock to me—increasingly, athletes are encouraged to be dull in service of the brand, and that's only going to get worse with time. It's one giant nothing-burger, served up over and over, and it makes you wonder why they hold press conferences at all. The Europeans are more interesting than the Americans, but the bar is being slowly lowered everywhere.

So when someone like Pete Willett comes along, I want to scream out, THANK GOD! He was mean, he was funny, he was reckless, and he probably made life miserable for his brother. But at least he wasn't boring.