January 11, 2021: Justin Thomas in Hawaii
Today’s post is a little different. It’s about recent events in the golf world rather than the promised One Good Song. If you’re only in this for the music, fear not — we’re back to regular programming later this week.
When I watched Justin Thomas’ post-round interview from the Tournament of Champions on Sunday night, I didn’t understand why the reporter was so focused on an overnight distraction. My first impulse was to feel pity, assuming it was something COVID-related: maybe someone in his traveling party tested positive, or a family member back on the mainland was feeling really sick. As the tone of the conversation became apologetic, I thought maybe he’d issued some regrettable take on the current American political landscape or retweeted something he shouldn’t have. He grew up in Kentucky, went to school at Alabama, and lives in south Florida — it didn’t seem like a stretch!
And then I hopped online and learned he’d been caught saying “faggot” on a hot mic after missing a short putt Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t muster any real outrage, and I didn’t feel hurt. I felt exhausted. That’s how JT sounded when I watched the above clip a few times: not seething, not boiling, not overcome with rage. Tired, that’s all. Responding to an avoidable lapse in focus. It was a “faggot” remarkable for its lack of intent: not pointed inward, not even directed at the ball or hole, a slur like a disappointed sigh. (Say what you will about Patrick Reed, but he delivered his f-bomb with a certain gusto you almost have to respect.) That’s what hurt, if anything — the casual delivery, the way it tumbled out as if routinely delivered under his breath. I found myself recalling his opposition to on-course player audio. It makes more sense now!
I hate that I have so much practice reconciling my golf fandom with everything else about my life. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but that’s what golf feels like as a young, progressive gay man. It’s something I have to justify to the people who otherwise know me best, something for which I have to apologize. At least I can tell myself professional golf’s pronounced rightward lean is a natural consequence of unfathomable wealth: “DJ’s just a fiscal conservative, right? I know it!” It’s much harder to forgive the sport’s ambivalence on racial justice beyond buzzwords, a few courageous statements from guys like Harold Varner III and Cameron Champ — two of the few players personally affected by racism! What a surprise! — and token gestures from the sport’s gatekeepers.
It’s when the product comes into conflict with one of the core parts of my identity that the bending gets close to breaking. My best-case scenario as a golf fan is living in a bizarre fantasy bubble where sexuality is a completely irrelevant concept. We take it as a given that the perfect families greeting victorious men on the 72nd green are only ever beautiful women and beaming children. Everything else is a festival of gorgeous shotmaking, beautiful natural surroundings, and unblemished history. When that bubble is pierced, it’s never for heartwarming reasons. It usually means active hostility.
Then again, maybe hostility isn’t exactly right. It’s not like a panel of gays is going to convene and render a verdict on whether Justin Thomas is “truly” homophobic, and I think that conversation misses the point anyway. The deeper, more insidious problem is a degree of ignorance that’s difficult to outline or articulate. It’s knowing from a lifetime of experience that someone only uncorks a slur like that in a private, solitary moment — caught on TV, yes, but private and solitary nonetheless — when they’ve never thought for a second about how it can sting someone like me. They’ve never heard someone talk about a single word’s reductive, diminishing power. I found myself wondering if JT knows a gay person; I would be shocked if he had a gay friend. It doesn’t seem like he’s walked a par 5 in my spikes. Beyond that, it’s the lingering feeling that his apology rang with embarrassment over getting caught rather than genuine understanding or regret, and it’s the fear this will pass in a few days and nothing’s really going to change.
I’ve thought a lot about what golf — particularly men’s professional golf, but the sport as a whole — could do with respect to LGBTQ+ outreach, even before this incident. In the short-term, it would mean a lot for journalists to ask other players their thoughts on what happened to JT. It would mean even more to hear another top player express their disappointment with him instead of closing ranks. And it would great to get JT some sensitivity training, and to see him reach a place of real understanding and even advocacy; if he’s as sorry as he claims to be, why not do something about it?
In a broader sense, I think queer fans would benefit from a level of representation beyond the current “zero.” Maybe the professional tours could broaden their extensive charity work to encourage queer participation in the game, or highlight that work if it’s already happening. I would love to see more inclusive language around partners and families beyond the standard-issue “wives and girlfriends” stuff. Hell, maybe even some recognition and campaigning around Pride. I hope someday we have the opportunity to celebrate a high-level player on any tour who’s out and proud.
And if we zoom all the way out, it would be nice to feel like golf recognizes gay people in moments other than apologies for bad behaviour. We’re here all the time, not just when someone’s ass needs to be covered. And while it may not seem that way in the above paragraph, I’m actually a realist. I’m OK if 90% of tour players are Republicans rather than democratic socialists. I don’t need to see Brooks Koepka at a drag queen brunch or Rory waving a rainbow flag on a parade float. (Though both of those things would be extremely cool.) Hearing Justin Thomas say “faggot” on a hot mic isn’t going to keep me from loving the game. But it would be great if I could feel, for once, like the game loves me back.