x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Golf failed the racism test

The administrators have failed to take a stand and punish Steve Williams for his comments, writes John Leicester.

Steve Williams, left, has put his employer Adam Scott, right, in an awkward position with some demanding that he fire him.
Steve Williams, left, has put his employer Adam Scott, right, in an awkward position with some demanding that he fire him.

Now we know: golf is a sport where you can aim a racial slur at Tiger Woods in front of a room of people and not get punished for it.

In fact, in certain company, when the audience is in a party mood and thinks the world is not watching or listening, you might even get a few laughs.

If golf really and truly had "no place for any form of racism", which is what the heads of the US PGA and European tours said, then Steve Williams wouldn't be working this week.

Instead he would be suspended or lying low somewhere, wishing he hadn't referred to Woods in the manner he did.

If golf really had no place for racism, then the sport would have required that the caddie, sacked by Woods in July, do more, far more, than simply apologise, which he has done both to Woods in person and to the wider world in a begrudging, three-line statement.

Why not, for starters, insist that he attend courses on race relations and respect before next stepping onto a fairway?

If golf had zero place for racism, there would be fewer apologists for Williams quickly turning the page. There would be more golfers like Fred Couples who were not prepared to dismiss Williams's comment at a caddies awards party as an ugly attempt at humour that failed.

The US captain for the Presidents Cup was reported as saying that if Williams were his caddie, he would have fired him.

Woods said that he and Williams "met face to face and talked about it, talked it through" on Tuesday.

Greg Norman, captain of the Presidents Cup International side, employed Williams in the 1980s. Both golfers said the New Zealand caddie is not a racist. "No doubt about that," Woods said. "No, not at all," Norman said.

That is somewhat reassuring, but also irrelevant here.

That Williams, as far as ex-colleagues can actually know these things, does not hate people because of their skin colour or ethnic background does not erase what he said.

Suggesting it was out of character, that Williams does not habitually say such things, that the comment was reported out of context or that those who were not there are not qualified to have an opinion, does not make such slurs right or less painful to people who have long been on the receiving end of them.

Woods called the remark "hurtful" and "a wrong thing to say".

What happens at the caddies dinners isn't meant to leave the room. Those who attend the annual parties do so on the understanding that what is said remains off the record.

But, in this case, the rules made the whole affair look worse and raised disturbing questions. If not for British reporters who ignored the restrictions, would anyone have said anything?

No matter the context, racial slurs should be taboo. So is this what top people in golf say to each other behind closed doors?

Surely not, one imagines.

Even so, that Williams seemed to feel comfortable that he would not be booed off stage or ostracised for his remark had the unfortunate effect of making his audience of fellow caddies and players look complicit, even if it wasn't.

That impression was aided by Williams telling a New Zealand radio station that the evening was "a fun sort of thing, and everyone laughed their heads off. So, you know, what you read is absolutely ridiculous."

In that interview, Williams expressed no remorse at all.

Some said that Adam Scott, his employer, should have sacked Williams. But Scott was a victim here, too, unwittingly placed in the middle by something someone else said.

This was a problem for the whole of golf, represented by top administrators, to take a stand on.

The sport needed to make it loud and clear that racial slurs will have punitive consequences, to dissuade others from making them, too.

Golf has a great number of rules to govern the minutiae of what to do, say, when the wind blows the ball or when it lands in water.

But on this issue that mattered, it let itself down.

Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner, and George O'Grady, the European Tour chief executive, condemned Williams's slur as "entirely unacceptable in whatever context."

But they took no action.

Golf has no place for racism, they said. Williams put that to the test.

Golf failed.