Much is made of the beneficent properties of sports fandom, the wish fulfillment provided by deep personal identification with a team or athlete. For a young person the capacity to lose him or herself in the fantasy-driven embodiment of sports heroes can be a vital esteem-building ritual. It can also be an important pedagogical tool. Teaching a child to comport themselves not only with the physical excellence of a Carlos Delgado or Bjorn Borg, but also their dignity and sportsmanship can invest an impressionable youngster with tremendous character.
Less celebrated but equally important is the role that sports plays in informing us of who we hate. Because human beings are largely born bereft of deep personal prejudice, it can be difficult to comprehend at first the vital reality that the Dallas Cowboys are in fact the odious product of an illegitimate coupling between the late Senator Strom Thurmond (R- SC) and a hundred-headed gargoyle. Thus it is a foremost responsibility of each and every parent to place their infant children in front of the television during a Cowboys game and explain in calm but resolute detail the tragic and terrible things that happen to anyone who is misled down the ruinous path of Dallas fandom. For in order to survive a while in this eviscerating bell jar of a world, a child must first know the name and face of his nemesis.
A grown man has to know this too. With the accumulation of years, it is possible to begin to lose the hard edge of one's paranoia, and thus allow your enemies to creep up and gain the advantage. Frustrating distractions like work and family life can redirect vital energy from the process of sending crashing wave after wave of unprocessed hatred to those you wish to see fail in the sports world. Never has this inattention to detail caused more damage than in the case of my personal vendetta against Phil Mickelson.
The endless reservoir of ill will that I harbor against the world's #2 golfer is a matter of record. Throughout a heavy plurality of his fifteen years on the PGA tour, I assiduously rooted for the forces of darkness to mass on Mickelson's door, maliciously casting hex and curse in his direction, hour after hour, day after day. It was important work and I relished it. But by 2004 I had become reckless and distracted, and following a twelve-year drought, Mickelson finally broke through and won his first major at Augusta. A win at the PGA and another Masters title ensued in the following years, until thankfully a complete rededication of my animus has rendered him back to a relative state of impotence in important tournaments.
All of that is important as a fan's cautionary tale, but the question remains: why do I hold Mickelson in such maximum low esteem? How did he become my nemesis?
In part my animus for Mickelson can be traced to his slothful appearance and what frequently seems like a capricious disinterest in his own enormous talent. I am not typically one to judge others on the basis of their appearance, owing as I wouldn't especially prefer to be judged on my own. But in the case of a highly paid, elite athlete of almost immeasurable physical abilities, it somehow burdens the senses to see this man consistently arrive grossly out of condition for the most important tournaments of the season. Seeing him stand next to the extraordinarily muscled Tiger Woods, or even the reasonably trim likes of Retief Goosen feels a bit like an insult.
But mainly what I dislike about Mickelson is his vast and completely unmerited popularity with an inexplicably huge number of fellow golf enthusiasts. The widespread notion of Mickelson is as a workaday "everyman" grinds so dissonantly against the air of wealth and privilege emanating from him as to conjure in me a state of utter incredulity. I mean, in what sense is Mickelson an everyman? He grew up on a country club. He owns a jet. Other than superior talent and inferior work ethic, there is absolutely nothing to distinguish this man from other blow-dried also-rans Davis Love or Paul Azinger. But there is a further, more sinister aspect to Mickelson's popular appeal. The reinvention of the "Average Joe" has been an ongoing and malignant narrative in American society dating back to the Reagen era. The gradual erosion of emphasis on the stories of true blue collar sports idols — say Jack Dempsey coming out of itinerant poverty to inspire millions of poor Americans — mirrors a concerted effort to depreciate the contributions of working-class or Union-oriented Americans over the past three decades. It is an inauthentic and fatuous take on populism which finds its logical end in a "regular guy" like George W. Bush twice being elected President in significant measure on the basis of his "relatability." The American tradition of populism is an important and honorable one, and its gradual erosion has profoundly harmed this nation of possibilities.
This may seem like a trivial point when applied to sports, but I believe there is real significance in the treatment of Phil Mickelson as the "everyman" while the less privileged by birth (and non-white) Tiger Woods is frequently portrayed as an imperious overlord. Woods’s transcendent greatness so subsumes every other aspect of the dialogue regarding him that it is a difficult comparison to make. But what about, say, Vijay Singh? Now THERE is an everyman. Growing up a dirt-poor caddie for tourists in Fiji, here is a man who became a three time major champion not by any worldly advantage but instead by sheer magnitude of will. If he is not the most personable or press-friendly of athletes, well, one can kind of understand it. He's been a little busy.
I am a tremendous fan of the PGA tour, but let’s not kid ourselves about what we are watching here. This is, with precious few exceptions, a sport that is the provenance of an upper-middle and wealthy class of individuals with the means to learn a rarified and expensive game at something like their leisure. The mere ubiquity of the PGA’s constant presence on network television compared with the more or less complete disappearance of professional boxing from those same airwaves over the last 20 years mirrors a cultural and economic shift towards kowtowing to the whims of the elite. Boxing has always drawn higher ratings than golf on network television, but owing to the exponentially more modest means of the demographic who gravitates towards and participates in that sport, golf still remains the more profitable enterprise to networks, who can sell high-priced advertising by promising credit card and luxury car companies an audience replete with disposable income. In some ways the co-opting by Mickelson of the “everyman” archetype represents the ultimate marginalization of working-class people from the golf world. If a dyed-in-the-wool elite can successfully occupy the underdog niche simply by showing up fat and proceeding to underachieve, then that is one last avenue closed off for a an individual from the working poor to make a name for himself.
Thus I give you: the nemesis. Just as the sports fan values the transporting escapism of their heroes, they must likewise employ their vexing malefactor to cast into bold relief that which they can scarcely tolerate. It’s gotten to be golf season, and I’m pissed…