Sergio Garcia and damaged greens

Sergio Garcia was wrong.

That shouldn’t have to be said, of course, but as a starting point here, damaging a golf course, and doing it repeatedly, is not something that should happen. It shouldn’t be condoned in any corner, and the fact that he was disqualified for doing it on Saturday at the Saudi International was absolutely the right call. He isn’t the first player to slam his putter or drag his feet along on the green in frustration, but as far as I can tell, he probably is the first to do that on five consecutive holes. Five! Golfers tend to complain about a lot of different things, but I can only imagine that the damage was pretty significant if several groups went to officials to complain in the wake of Garcia’s brand of course maintenance. If you saw that happen on your local muni, you would not only report it, you would probably also never play with that person ever again.

Garcia apologized, both to the players behind him and European Tour head Keith Pelley, understanding that his DQ was the right call. In the aftermath, the conversation immediately turned toward what kind of punishment Garcia would receive, with Geoff Shackelford suggesting that starting with a year-long ban would be a good idea, but Pelley has already said that the matter is closed and Garcia will not face any additional penalty for defacing the course. The same report linked above from Martin Dempster at the Scotsman indicates that Garcia will also not have to pay back any of the appearance fee money received for teeing it up.

Should Garcia receive additional punishment, in the form of a fine or suspension? Yes, he should, and in fact, it should probably be both. In the grand scheme of sports infractions, damaging the golf course probably doesn’t rate in the same way that a dirty hit does in the NFL, or intentionally throwing at a batter’s head does in baseball, but in golf, this is as bad as it gets. Garcia not only damaged the golf course, but he did it in a way that could have a profound impact on the other players in the tournament. On top of that, we all know this isn’t the first time that Garcia has done something that flies in the face of proper etiquette, both on and off the golf course.

The problem here is that we don’t really have a precedent for this. It isn’t like taking an unplayable and knowing how many strokes to add to your score, or an established number of games to be missed for a PED test. How do you determine what’s a reasonable amount of time to suspend someone given that something like this is so unprecedented? Making matters trickier is the notion that the European Tour could suspend Garcia for a few tournaments, but what does that look like? In a world where the players choose their starts, a suspension of five events – none of which Garcia may have been playing in anyway – doesn’t really hold a lot of weight. That is why Shackelford’s suggestion of a year long ban makes a level of sense because it would be a punishment guaranteed to hit Garcia on several events that he intended to play in. However, that brings us to a different set of problems.

The first being that a year long suspension of Garcia on the European Tour would likely not be adhered to on the PGA Tour, so unless there was a unified front that said Garcia was banned on both, he would just end up playing more in the States, making more money than he would have anyway in Europe. Could that actually happen where the PGA Tour goes in lockstep with a Euro Tour suspension? Sure, but given that both tours seem to have disagreements on how to handle other rules issues (Haotong Li vs. Denny McCarthy), I find it hard to believe that they would find common ground on this one. Ultimately, it would just feel like a weak suspension when you saw Garcia tee it up on the West Coast anyway.

The second problem that a long Garcia suspension brings is that it would come at a time when it really feels as though the European Tour is at a crossroads. Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose, both through their words and their actions, have committed more clearly to the PGA Tour than the tour they grew up on, and so have other quality players further down the list like Branden Grace and Kiradech Aphibarnrat. A suspension of Garcia, even with him admitting that that he was wrong, has the potential to alienate one of the tour’s most important players at a time when appearance fees are seemingly required to attract many top names to tournaments. Is that also why Patrick Reed became the fourth American player ever last week to receive an honorary lifetime membership from the tour, joining Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Watson? Doing so should get Reed to make a few more starts in Europe, at least for a certain amount of time, but not even Reed would suggest that he belongs in that same class of player, at least not publicly. The fact that Garcia hosts a tournament every year muddies the waters further.

On some level, I’m sure Pelley and the European Tour are expecting that people will just forget about this and move on, a notion made all the easier by the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any video or photos of the greens that Garcia is said to have damaged. Out of sight, out of mind, right? I don’t know if video of these incidents exist, given that Garcia was out early on Saturday, but in 2019, just about everything is captured on video, so I find it hard to believe that nothing exists. There’s some talk that photos are out there from the rules officials who had to investigate, but I’m assuming those aren’t leaking out any time soon.

What’s interesting is that this whole thing with Garcia may have actually produced some kind of benefit for Pelley and the tour. This is all anyone is talking about in the aftermath of the event, and I’m not just talking about how Dustin Johnson won another tournament. The controversy surrounding the event, and Pelley’s weak explanation for why they were there in the first place, is now being overshadowed by Garcia’s antics, which are much easier for Pelley to deal with than why they were in Saudi Arabia to begin with.

As James Corrigan noted, the last time a player was suspended by the tour was when Simon Dyson received a two month ban and a fine for tapping down a spike mark. That move is now allowed, and even if it wasn’t, would be an offense of far less damage than what Garcia is said to have done. It’s not an apples to apples comparison, but it’s the best we have to go on, and one that could have been used as a measuring stick for punishment. It wasn’t, and instead, this has been swept under the rug in an attempt to be forgotten.

For the 39-year old Garcia, it’s another hit to his reputation, which had been getting repaired in recent years. For the European Tour, it’s a black mark in a week full of them. Both parties will wish that this goes away soon, and that they can get on with their business, but I’m guessing it won’t any time soon, and nor should it.

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