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Life Ain't Fair

If you're Talor Gooch, it's naive to expect "fair" treatment

May 03, 2023

There's a tweet that went viral in 2018, and was so memorable that it continues to be referenced on a regular basis today:

The enduring popularity of that little slice of social media is a lot about the delivery, but also about the message: Here they come, those consequences, pesky and inevitable.

I thought about that tweet this morning in regards to the Talor Gooch situation. If you missed it, the short version is that the USGA made a slight change to its qualifying criteria that effectively closed a door on Gooch for this year's U.S. Open. Previously, anyone who "qualified" for the Tour Championship the previous year would be exempt, but at some point that language changed to "those players who were qualified and eligible." You see the shift there—Gooch "qualified," but was ineligible because he went to LIV Golf. He can still try to make the field by world ranking (he'll have to perform well in the PGA Championship), but that makes his task a lot harder. Gooch lamented the decision in a podcast, and players like Phil Mickelson have drawn attention to the issue on social media.

USGA CEO Mike Whan told the Golf Channel that it "stinks" when a decision they make impacts somebody, but that "we can only look forward." He even said, "we’re not going to change our criteria" in reference to Gooch, which, as many pointed out, is a little rich considering that, well, they did change their criteria in a way that excluded him. (The slightly uncharitable reading of Whan's quote translates to something like "tough cookies.")

For the purpose of this argument, let's try to be as agnostic on the broad issues as possible, both about LIV Golf and the USGA decision. Is LIV Golf bad? Is the USGA being unjustly punitive to Gooch? For now, we'll ignore those questions and ask a different one:

When you're in a war, should you expect the other side to be "fair"?

What's been fascinating to me about the Gooch defenders in this case is that there seems to be some kind of presumption that the USGA owes him fair treatment. But if you accept the idea that LIV Golf and the PGA Tour are locked in a serious existential battle for the soul of golf, and that both sides are going to mobilize any ally they have, doesn't the USGA decision make perfect sense?

Again, it doesn't mean you have to like it. If you're a LIV Golf supporter, or you just think guys like Gooch have become collateral damage in the ongoing fight, you might think this is an unnecessary or even petty punishment. But the important point is that the minute Gooch signed up for LIV Golf, he took sides in a fight, and was no longer a neutral party. Once you jump in the fray, you have to live with everything that comes next. For Gooch to complain strikes me as equivalent in microcosm to some small nation declaring war on a superpower, and then being shocked when its capital gets bombed.

This works both ways. If LIV Golf finds itself on the ascent, you can bet any mercy they show to the Tour will be on their terms. And if you back an organization like the PGA Tour into a corner, they're going to fight with every weapon at their disposal—as far as they know, their survival is at stake. That's a basic concept, so it's baffling to see a litany of woe-is-me complaints anytime the Tour or any other party exercises its power and influence. LIV players still expected to play in the FedExCup playoffs last summer; they still expect an easy path to OWGR points; they still want to play in the Ryder Cup.

And they may get some of those things, eventually, but if they do, they're going to get them the same way you get anything in a war: either by conquest or by amassing enough power that your enemies are willing to negotiate. At the moment, though, players like Gooch seem to want their cake and to eat it too; to join the war on the side of LIV Golf, but still be treated "fairly" by the organization they're directly threatening.

That's not how it works. When you throw a metaphorical punch, and it's not a knockout blow, you can't whine or be shocked at the inevitable retaliation. The public-facing side of the Tour, of the USGA, and of LIV Golf observe the rituals of politeness and nicety, but those same poses may not actually govern their actions. Naïveté doesn't play; the rules of conflict don't include the subjective concept we call "fairness," and actions have consequences.