ERIN, Wis. — For veteran golf scribes, it was a jarring moment. On Thursday, Rickie Fowler, one of the most popular players in the game and arguably the best current player never to have won a major, had shot 65 in the opening round of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills. In the first official round on the longest course ever to host the world’s best players, his score tied the championship record of seven under par for a single round.
The story of the first-round leader of the U.S. Open has long been one that golf writers dove into. From the power duo of Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf tying with record 63s at Baltusrol in 1980, or 21-year-old Lee Mackey Jr. setting the then one-round record with a 64 at Merion in 1950, to Martin Kaymer beginning what would be an eight-stroke runaway at Pinehurst in 2014, the first-round leader of the U.S. Open gives golf’s chroniclers the main stage to talk about beginnings and possibilities, perhaps start some lore, or let an important figure hold forth.
The game always benefits from the attention.
And yet Fowler, known for being cooperative with journalists, chose to skip coming into the media center for the long traditional sit-down, post-round interview before what would have been a packed room.
Instead, he gave his comments at a microphone standing before a smaller group of scribes outside the Erin Hills clubhouse in the so-called “flash area.” As the term implies, the format is fast and compressed, with fewer questions, shorter answers and little chance for follow-up. There’s an unmistakable sense that the player is in a hurry.
Fowler, though often glib in his many commercials, favors a tempered cautiousness in his interview answers, rarely venturing from dry to even droll. He might not have significantly expanded on what he said in the flash interview, where Jordan Spieth, or especially Geoff Ogilvy, the most thoughtfully verbal player in the game, certainly would have.
But Fowler was the leader, and his decision to break precedent matters. Whether they like it or not, the game’s best players are also its most influential thought leaders. What they say at tournaments, and especially majors, can both inspire and deepen understanding of a nuanced game. Forfeiting such a platform ultimately hurts golf.
It should be noted that the players are not required by the PGA Tour or the USGA to come to the media center to be interviewed. Over the years it has been assumed that the process was beneficial to the player, and the right thing to do for the event, sponsors and the game. But as today’s players have received more media exposure, some of it on their own websites or social media, it appears the time and inconvenience required is marginalizing the media-center interview.
History on this matter is moving in the wrong direction. Ben Hogan didn’t like reporter’s questions, apparently treating most of them with the same quick dismissiveness NBA coach Gregg Popovich shows during in-game interviews. But Arnold Palmer’s cooperation with the media made the game more accessible, and Nicklaus followed and eventually improved upon his example. Both felt their cooperation was simply part of the job.
Inevitably, that sense of obligation started to change as players became more wealthy and didn’t feel as much urgency to take advantage of opportunities for exposure. Fred Couples was indifferent during group interviews. Tiger Woods knew he couldn’t escape them and consistently fulfilled what he was constantly told was his responsibility, although sometimes grudgingly.
It was the Woods era that gave birth to the flash area. Woods learned to take advantage of its expediency more and more, until the flash areas became the predominant venue for his interviews. Phil Mickelson moved in the same direction.
The decline in access and more in-depth group interaction is apparent when the long competitively inactive Nicklaus addresses reporters in a media-center interview, most notably at the Memorial Tournament. Nicklaus, called by Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times sports writer, the best interviewee among all athletes, is if anything more thoughtful and candid than in his playing days. He still welcomes the “scrum”—the time after the main interview ends in which a smaller gathering of reporters crowd close to ask him questions in a more conversational way that usually elicits fresh and more freewheeling responses. I would argue that over the years, such sessions made Nicklaus the best explainer and, through what journalists wrote, the most enlightening teacher of golf ever.
I very much get that it is a different time in which players are busier with practice, working out or family, and do a lot less hanging around. There was a time when the locker room was where groups of print journalists interviewed players. Then the practice tee and practice green became a common setting, until players inevitably began to feel their space invaded. They would sometimes complain to writers, “Do I come to your office and bother you?” As the territory for access shrunk, the interview room became crucial.
It’s still a fertile pre-tournament source, when players are still relaxed and even expansive. But once competition starts, today’s players, perhaps influenced by Woods’ example, pull back the sharing of thoughts or much elaboration. The interviews they do submit to tend toward the cliché and the obvious, the goal to fulfill the obligation without distracting from their focus.
It’s an understandable defense. At the U.S. Open, leaders who have finished their rounds are asked after signing their scorecard to talk to several television and radio outlets, a process sometimes referred to as “the carwash.” By the time they get finished, they have probably said more than they wanted, some of it over and over. Out of fresh thoughts, and thinking about eating and perhaps another practice session, they are asked to stand at the flash area or come to the media center, to sit at a podium before a larger group, for a longer time.
Naturally they favor the flash area. One of the biggest losers in this sequence is Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press, who effectively serves as the golf writer for all the newspapers who never had or no longer have a golf writer. Because of his constant deadlines, he doesn’t have time to leave his computer to wait at the flash, where he knows it will be difficult to ask more than one question. When players do come to the media center, Ferguson, who has the most urgent need for the latest material, asks lot of questions, many of them good ones that usually produce answers that benefit every journalist present. But without players coming to the media center, such “good stuff” will be lost.
What’s worrisome is that players will take note of Fowler’s decision and start to emulate it. Indeed, through the first two rounds of the championship at Erin Hills, more than 50 players were interviewed in the flash area, but only one—Brian Harman (one of four players who tied for the 36-hole lead)—came to the press center to be interviewed.
It’s understandable in the current climate—which now includes journalists regularly considered to be putting out “fake news”—that agents and managers who handle the players see an opportunity for lessening media obligations. Perhaps Fowler’s decision was in part a test to see if anyone would notice. It was.
At least no PGA Tour winner to date has declined the media center interview. That one would seems inconceivable. But before Thursday, the same could have been said about the first-round leader of the U.S. Open doing the same.