The human brain often thrives on comparisons. We don’t like the unexpected, because in some subconscious evolutionary way we believe the unexpected is dangerous, and so in times of uncertainty we seek out analogous situations to guide our reactions and put us back in the comfortable realm of the familiar. So when Sergio Garcia appeared to purposely damage a handful of greens during the third round of the Saudi International on Saturday, leading to his disqualification from the European Tour event, my first instinct—after the shock, anyway—was to scan recent memory for similar incidents.
I started with Phil Mickelson’s moment of infamy during the third round of last year’s U.S. Open, when, like a frustrated child on a miniature golf course, he chased down his own errant putt on the 13th hole at Shinnecock Hills and hit it again before it stopped moving. That was the last really jaw-dropping incident in professional golf, but on analysis, it wasn’t as surprising as it first appeared. Mickelson is an impulsive risk-taker, he loves the spotlight and his “smartest guy in the room” mentality often leads him to making points in an extremely public manner. Clearly, it wasn’t a planned stunt, but what happened at Shinnecock was ultimately true to his nature.
Then I thought of Sergio and how his own past incidents have included spitting in a cup and throwing a shoe at an advertising board. In that sense, the anger and spite we saw in Saudi Arabia were not out of character.
And yet … Mickelson’s Shinnecock fiasco and Sergio’s past temper tantrums all share one thing in common—they were crimes of passion, crimes of the moment, committed and then instantly regretted. Not to equate golf outbursts with actual felonies, but there’s a reason that voluntary manslaughter—again, a crime of passion—is lower on the hierarchy than first-degree murder, which requires premeditation. Almost every embarrassing act we see on a golf course, from anger to cheating to gamesmanship, comes on the spur of the moment. But Sergio’s actions on Saturday appeared to constitute a series of bizarre, premeditated acts, and as a first-degree golf crime, I can think of no analogue. Not from his own past, not from Phil Mickelson, not from anyone. This is an incident without comparison, which makes it almost impossible to put in context.
This would be a good time to review exactly what we know: It appears that Sergio was frustrated with the greens very early on in the week. Then, on Friday, Garcia was involved in a separate incident of slamming his club into a bunker out of frustration for the lie he had, one he believed was created by a previous group's poor raking of the sand.
Then came Saturday’s incident. We don’t know if Garcia’s frustration in the third round was general or specific, but for whatever reason, he apparently decided to gouge a number of greens with his putter. According to The Scotsman’s Martin Dempster, Garcia actually damaged “no fewer than five greens.” At least four groups behind him complained, and after a conversation with European Tour CEO Keith Pelley, Garcia was DQ’d—a decision he said he “respected” while admitting to damaging “a couple of greens.” Dempster later went out on the course and found what he thought was one of Garcia’s divots on the sixth green:
All of this, every last bit of it, is completely and utterly nuts. If he had lost his cool and done this to one green, it would be a crazy story. The fact that Garcia did it reportedly to no fewer than five greens is frankly unbelievable. It shows an utter lack of self-control. It gives us a glimpse into Sergio’s soul that no temporary blow-up ever could, and what it shows is not flattering.
It’s also—let’s just admit this—funny. Not everyone will agree with that last characterization, but it’s a universal law that the longer you picture a fuming professional golfer stalking from green to green on a mission of vengeance, slamming his putter into the innocent grass in what he feels is justified protest … well, the likelier it becomes that you’re going to laugh. And then you’ll think about it again and wonder if he was enduring some sort of breakdown, and then you’ll feel bad for laughing.
And what about further punishment? In 2013, the European Tour gave Simon Dyson a “suspended two-month ban” and a £30,000 fine for pressing down a spike mark in the path of his putt in what they deemed an intentional act. That was clearly a grave crime in their eyes, and whether you agree with it or not, it would certainly seem to set a precedent that dooms Garcia to a potentially far greater penalty. I mean, let’s say it again: He apparently purposefully tried to ruin several greens. It had a negative impact on the course, on his fellow players and, potentially, on the tournament as a whole. It’s hard to think of a more profoundly selfish act, and the minute he brought his putter down on the second green, his act became “premeditated,” which was a serious consideration for the European Tour when assessing Dyson’s punishment.
Pelley, for his part, finds himself in the mother of all unenviable positions: Either give Garcia the serious long-term ban he deserves, and the European Tour loses one of its stars, or let him off with a slap on the wrist and face a (wholly legitimate) charge of hypocrisy. Compounding the problem, the organization itself was already under significant political fire for staging a tournament in Saudi Arabia in the first place, and didn’t exactly position themselves on the moral high ground. It must have been very tempting to adopt a position of “what happens in Saudi Arabia stays in Saudi Arabia, and also, let’s never go back there again.”
In fact, it now appears that there will be no further punishment. Which doesn’t change the messy nature of the aftermath, and will only heighten the scrutiny on the European Tour. Sergio’s act of extreme peevishness is unprecedented, and it fundamentally alters the course of his career—after a youth spent vacillating between unpredictability, dynamic golf, and uneven pressure play, Sergio transitioned in his late 30s into a Masters champion, one of the greatest Ryder Cup golfers to ever live, and an elder statesman of the game. Now? He’s in disgrace, and the ignominy is entirely of his own making. We may never understand the dark mental turns that convinced him to damage those greens, one after another, but the damage to his legacy is crystal clear.