Dropping “the finger” is bound to generate outcry. But the shouts from Bio Kim’s bird have resulted in an interesting debate.
Kim, a former PGA Tour player, shot a fan the Bronx salute last Sunday at a Korean Tour event following a cellphone click in his backswing, an occurrence Kim said happened multiple times throughout his round. He added a club slam to underline his frustration. Each would prove costly when the tour handed Kim a three-year suspension for his actions. Just as astonishing, to many, was Kim’s mea culpa, the 29-year-old pleading for forgiveness in front of a phalanx of cameras.
The story went viral, many believing the punishment didn’t fit the crime, Kim’s visceral appeal supporting the sentiment. Yet as the discussion seemed to lean in Kim’s favor, the situation revealed something more, for Kim’s punishment is compelling in the sense that … well, a governing body publicly chastised bad behavior. Yes, the PGA Tour fines its players when caught on camera cursing or doing actions that could be considered conduct unbecoming, but open admonishment is rare.
Perhaps then instead of focusing on the length of Kim’s ban, the question needs reframing. Chiefly, could the Korean Tour’s decision serve as a siren song for increased public action?
As a preface, Kim’s actions against South Korea’s cultural backdrop, in which manners and obedience are paramount, are part of the equation. That ideology carries over to the Korean Tour, where a player can face discipline “When reckless behavior damages a member’s dignity.”
Yet, according to E.J. Sohn, editor-in-chief and director of GolfDigest Korea, though Kim’s actions were widely panned in the country, public opinion on the ruling is divided.
“Many people expected a punishment of not participating in the next tournament or the rest of the season before the decision,” Sohn said. “It’s shocking.”
Sohn's position rings true from an American vantage point. Kevin Na, a friend of Kim’s, called the decision “ridiculous.”
“You’re taking a man’s job for three years,” Na said on Wednesday at the PGA Tour’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. “Yes, he was unprofessional and there should be consequences for it, but not take a man’s job away for three years. At the same time, the spectator was disrespecting the game and the player at the same time.”
Na is right. Three years is excessive. Some criminal felonies confer shorter sentences, and while unbecoming, a middle finger is a gesture seen on a routine basis, be it on the commute or a pick-up game at the Y. Na is also right when it comes to unprofessionalism and consequence. And in that regard, the sport—at least in America and Europe—has not seen those parallels.
Golf has looked the other way when it comes to club throws, temper tantrums, profanity and anything else that would embarrass your grandma. This posture is far from new. A young Bobby Jones was known for his outbursts, same with Seve Ballesteros. Tommy Bolt made a career out of them. Still, the past few seasons have provided a highlight reel of unseemly conduct.
It should be noted that golf, like all professional sports, has long operated outside societal norms. Bad behavior is chalked up to the heat of battle, the fiery passion that draws us to the spectacle.
This makes it easy to forget that, at its core, golf is a business, and that courses double as office space for tour pros. Taken through that prism, consider what would happen if you brazenly flipped off a co-worker at your office. At most companies, there’s a good chance you’d be sent packing. Destroy your cubicle or launch your computer monitor in disgust, ditto.
Be it changing cultural standards and tolerance, or heightened policing from social outlets, more entities and individuals in golf are making that connection and, slowly, tolerance of bad behavior is dissipating. From fans and media, yes, but also from the players themselves, as evidenced this year in multiple golfers questioning, and calling out, the actions of their own.
What constitutes poor behavior varies. An action perceived as a violation of code by one is merely a bad look by another, with a third not seeing the problem at all. Finding, and enforcing, the line can be a challenge.
Conversely, for a sport that prides itself as a “gentleman’s game,” accountability on misconduct has been inconsistent—and often nonexistent.
It should be repeated that the PGA and European Tour fine players for offenses, yet do so privately. Not that we are advocating a march to the stocks, but slapping someone away from the public eye somewhat defeats the purpose. Humiliation can be good.
Or rather, humility. For Kim, that meant pleading his case to the world on bended knee. His penalty was harsh. His example, however, was desperately needed.