The Loop

Whitten: Adopt A Golf Course!

November 08, 2011

*Colleague Ron Whitten and I used to disagree on golf photos. Back when I was the director of photography, I often picked a picture that was shot from behind the green. My philosophy: best picture wins. Whitten would write spirited emails in favor of a picture shot from the tee or the fairway. "I like to show the architecture of a hole for a story about architecture," was one of his main points. It was his story, and I don't have a degree in law, so I usually lost the arguments. **

I haven't been the subject of a spirited Whitten email in a few years. As you'll read in Whitten's post below, Jack Abramoff is now wearing the bullseye, and Whitten is shooting from the tee, the fairway and the hip:

***[#image: /photos/55ad7443add713143b425872]|||Abramoff.jpg|||Be forewarned, I feel a rant coming on. It's been triggered by the appearance last Sunday night on Sixty Minutes of Jack Abramoff, shamelessly trying to rehabilitate his image. Won't work. He'll always be a ruthless lobbyist who ignored laws, bought off Congressmen and scammed his own clients all at the same time.

Don't take my word for it. Watch Alex Gibney's excellent film, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," now on DVD. (This is a documentary. I've not seen the similarly-named motion picture starring Kevin Spacey.)

What frosts me most about Abramoff is how he used golf as one of his bribes to win over legislators. Gibney's film details how Abramoff, representing sweat shops in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands (an U.S. commonwealth) and intent on protecting their exemptions from American labor and minimum-wage laws, lured congressmen to the island on "fact-finding tours" that breezed through a factory (barely stopping to speak to any of the indentured-servant workers) before heading to a 5-star hotel and any of "the five championship golf courses on Saipan."

In an extra on the DVD, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Cal), who represents the California coastline from Huntington Beach to Rancho Palos Verdes, snorted that the beaches at Saipan weren't as good as those at home. "There is no surf in Saipan," he says, as the camera pans across several surfboards hanging on his office wall.

Rohrabacher also insisted the trip was "no prize," because it took a day or two of his valuable time just to fly there, and another day or two to fly back. "Jack wasn't doing me a big favor by having me go out there," he said in the interview.

But in the film itself, there's a snippet of a television interview Rohrabacher gave while standing on a Saipan golf course. "We've been here a week now," he said, "and I think the first-hand information will help us enlighten some of the others who haven't been pushing in the right direction."

A week! It would be laughable if it weren't so frustrating that this was an elected government official spreading BS with a golf course as his backdrop.

(The film notes that one of the parting gifts for the dozen or so Congressman who made the Saipan trip were campaign contributions from the garment factory owners. Gee, I thought foreign campaign contributions were illegal.)


Gibney's documentary also recounts another junket, this one to St. Andrews, Scotland, of a group that included Congressman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) flown out on Abramoff's private jet. (The junket was privately paid for by an Indian casino that had lost its gaming license. The subsequent discovery of how Abramoff manipulated this tribe out of a reported $32 million led to his eventual conviction and four-year prison sentence.)

Ney's two claims to fame are insisting that "French fries" be labeled "Freedom fries" on the Capitol Hill cafeteria, and for pleading guilty to charges stemming from Abramoff's activities. It's unclear whether the St. Andrews junket was one of those charges, but a Abramoff associate told Gibney that he suspected the whole trip was a illegal bribe. Ney, who resigned his seat and served 17 months in prison, said he was told he'd be attending a charitable golf event.

(Now a radio talk show host, Ney said in a candid interview on the DVD extra that he was playing so poorly in Scotland that he asked his caddie, "Have you ever seen anybody play this bad?"

"Rarely, rarely," the caddie responded. "So," Ney said, "after the second day, I quit golfing.")

My point of all this is that Gibney's documentary on Abramoff reinforces the public perception that golf is a frivolously expensive pastime that is played only by the wealthy or wannabe wealthy. I don't blame Gibney for this portrayal. I blame Abramoff. Golf courses were tantamount to hookers in his bag of carrots.

We who make our living in the industry of golf are just lucky that there are no golf courses right next to Wall Street or they'd be occupying fairways right now, too.

As if golf itself wasn't hurting. Rounds are down, courses are closing, people are losing jobs. But there isn't a government official out there who is willing to assign any appropriations to golf courses, not on the local level, or state level and certainly not on the federal level. Heck, the Economic Recovery Act specifically excluded golf projects from any lifeline.

What the golf industry needs is a lobbyist!

Forget I said that.

Sadly, it's easier to remove the corrupt influence of lobbyists in our nation's capital than it is to rehabilitate the public image of golf. The curbing of lobbyists is simple. There's no earthy reason in this digital age why our national legislature (or any state legislature, for that matter) needs to be cloistered in a central location. Elected representatives ought to remain in their districts full-time, and transact business electronically. Not only would that provide additional transparency of legislative activities (one of the things that brought Abramoff down were admissions he made in emails), it would greatly dissipate the influence of lobbyists. Special interests may have deep pockets, but it would bankrupt even the deepest in an attempt to corner politicians in the far corners of our nation, 435 separate Congressional districts (soon to be 446) and 100 senators. And it might make it easier for average citizens to actually gain an audience with their representative. Catch Dana Rohrabacher as he comes in off the southern California surf, for instance.

As for golf, what's needed is a grassroots movement, with golfers in each community banding together to save the weakest of their local golf courses. Call it a "Adopt a Golf Course" program.  Maybe it entails simply pledging to patronize a local course more often in the coming year, or volunteering to assist in its operation. Maybe it involves a local country club loaning equipment to a struggling course to help defray expenses. Maybe it's private country club members patronizing the local public course once a month.

The goal ought to be to save the weakest course in the neighborhood, especially if it's a scruffy, dried out municipal. Because that's where many of the next generation of golfers, customers, maintenance workers, pro-shop assistants and club members will come from. Unless it closes its doors.

Golf has no need for lobbying or government handouts, which aren't going to happen anyway. We need a grassroots involvement. It's in every golfer's interest to adopt a struggling course in his hometown in the coming year.

--Ron Whitten

(Follow Ron on Twitter @RonWhittenGD; follow me @Matt_Ginella.)