I recently chatted with Sports Illustrated writer Damon Hack. Me = bold. Him = italics. Duh. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You cover the NFL and golf for SI. How are the two sports different as far as coverage and access?
The NFL is much more intense. In football, the PR staff is more protective of the players — it’s very corporate and regimented. The players practice and beat themselves up. Golf is more relaxed, you get to know the players better. It’s just a little more loose than the NFL where it’s a hyper-intense environment 24/7.
The difference is that in the NFL there are 32 teams with 60 players in the locker room. The players on the PGA and LPGA Tour are more like independent contractors; there’s no PGA Tour union. They can play when they want and talk to who they want. They don’t have to worry about what they say that might upset their teammate. When you cover the NFL, there might be a defensive lineman that’s worried about pissing off an opponent he’s about to play or giving away secrets. Golf is just a little more of a collegial atmosphere.
Which sport do you like covering better?
I actually like golf writing better than football writing. At a football game, I’m in a box behind the glass window. There’s the old saying, “The smaller the ball, the better the writing.” I just think golf lends itself to really beautiful writing. I kind of fancy myself a feature writer and I just dig the profits of writing golf more so than writing football.
Don’t get me wrong, I like football a lot. But there are only a couple of must-see football stadiums, and after a while they all look the same — it’s a 100-yard field with a couple of end zones — that’s basically it. When you walk on Augusta National or Pebble Beach or St. Andrews, it’s special turf or ground. It’s just a great vibe.
Do you think performance-enhancing drugs will ever be a problem in golf? [Ed. Note: This interview took place before the PGA Tour announced that Doug Barron was a cheating doper.]
I did a story at the PGA Championship at Medinah in ‘06 about steroids and golf. I talked to Joey Sindelar and a bunch of other players about whether the PGA Tour should test. These days the courses are being built longer and strength is a much more important aspect. A lot of the [players I spoke to] said, “We think golf is different.” But the stakes are higher now and golf has become a big-money sport, just like baseball. Between the PGA Tour, the mini tours and satellite tours, we’d be naive to think there wouldn’t be a couple of guys that might be looking for an edge. I have no clue, I don’t know anyone that has done it or even thought about it. But I still think maybe for the guy who is on the fringe or almost on the next level, is he or she considering it? I think it’s a fair question to ask. As a journalist I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t think about it or ask questions, which I have.
My question to Sindelar was about PEDs in general and he said: “Up until this point in time, I would have said it is a fairly laughable question. The guys in my era weren’t workout guys. It didn’t used to be such a brute strength thing. But we’re getting some serious 6-1 baseball-player-type guys. There’s probably going to be a time when you’re going to look at guys and say, ‘Well, sooner or later somebody is going to cross that line.’”
This is a guy who won 7 times on the PGA Tour. He’s a well respected guy, who loves the game and said he believes in its integrity, but you just don’t know. There were some guys who said, “No way.” Then Joe Ogilvie said, “We market the long ball. We market the guys who hit it 300 yards. If that’s your message, and people see that beginning at the high school level, I think as a tour it is very naive to think that somebody down the line won’t cheat.”
I think it’d be a small, small number. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s rampant. I cover football and a couple times every month someone is suspended for whatever reason. As different as golf is, the PGA Tour is a big-money sport. Maybe I’m too jaded because I cover football and I just think that everybody cheats.
At the British Open, betting is legal. Do you think the players place bets on themselves or other players?
I know some guys go to Ladbrokes during the week before the Open Championship and put down some money on things. The betting houses are a mile from the course, if that. I imagine both on themselves and other players. I’d hope they’d bet on themselves.
[When I was at the NY Times] in ‘05, I wrote an article about betting at the British Open. At St. Andrews [that year] I asked players if they’d bet on themselves or in general. I remember I couldn’t get anyone on the record saying “I did that.” I was getting third-hand accounts of people saying, “Oh it goes on.”
There was an anonymous survey that Sports Illustrated [took] that year [asking players if they had placed a bet on themselves or another player at the British Open]. Apparently 20% of US Tour players admitted to placing a bet on themselves and 12% on another player. I asked Nick Faldo if he was part of the 20% or 12%. He said neither. Then I asked Jose Maria Olazabal. He said he’d never bet on himself.
At the ‘05 US Open at Pinehurst, Retief Goosen said he and Jason Gore made a small wager in the last three holes of the final round and both struggled and scored in the 80s. Goosen said, “I won five bucks.” Then I called Gore’s agent, who said no money was exchanged and they were just joking.
What do you think is the most undercovered story in golf?
I think it’s how much golf is becoming less discernible from the big-money sports. The money in the FedEx Cup is a little obscene. I love the fact that we had Tiger and Phil playing during football season and competing for the FedEx Cup. But to me, that $10 million supersedes the golf. I don’t like how the FedEx Cup is structured. I don’t like the big payoff at the end. It’s so contrived. I remember asking [Tim] Finchem when it was first launched if he expected this to compete against The Masters, the US Open, etc., and become one of the majors, and he basically said, “No, history will judge on its own merits, it’s a way to wrap up the season with some oompf.”
The money overshadows what the competition should be about. I’m sure the Tour thinks the ten million adds to the drama because it’s such a big number. At the end of the day, I think all those guys would take a Green Jacket over that — you can’t buy one of those. The Tour probably wouldn’t have been able to sell the players on [the FedEx Cup] without the money, but to me, it’s like trying create history or buy it. Given what’s going on with the economy, it just felt a little dirty this year.