WITH Dropgate, slow-play penalties, deer-antler spray, crass gamesmanship and fried chicken, golf is doing everything it can to mirror professional wrestling.
The antagonists in these incidents consistently turned a gentleman's game into something that smells a lot like the WWE. By the time the PGA Tour visits Merion for the U.S. Open in 3 weeks, they might be ready to rumble.
Merion is where Bobby Jones ended his career, where Ben Hogan forged his legend. Both are in golf heaven, shaking their heads at the erosion of decorum.
It began with the long-putter issue and continued through Vijay Singh's dalliance with a performance non-enhancing chemical, but both of those controversies simmered through the winter and spring as other unsavory dishes were served.
The first two of these were dished within hours of each other. Each left the bastion of decorum, oft-embattled Augusta National, shining like a beacon of hope.
Tianlang Guan, the sensational, 14-year-old Chinese amateur, playing the Masters as the Asia-Pacific Amateur champion, was assessed a one-stroke penalty by overeager, camera-loving official John Paramo, who has a history of high-profile, low-impact rulings.
Augusta National members saw the incident brewing, sought to avert it, then, in its aftermath, treated Guan and his entourage with princely diplomacy. Guan nearly missed the cut but took advantage of the moment to comport himself with grace.
It was a grace that many of his chroniclers and peers sorely lacked in their comments regarding the embarrassing instance of bullying. Chief among those peers: Tiger Woods, the unquestioned face of the sport, who showed Guan no mercy.
The next morning, it was mercy that extended Tiger's quest for a 15th major title.
Woods took an illegal drop on No. 15, finished his round and signed his scorecard - a clear rules violation that could have led to his disqualification. However, the tournament committee members determined that, since they reviewed tape while Tiger completed his round and incorrectly determined the drop was legal, it was their fault that Tiger signed an incorrect scorecard, and so they did not disqualify him.
A howl erupted from golf's self-appointed purists, who might have done well to review their golf history.
It was the second time the Masters allowed a player to continue having signed an incorrect scorecard. Dow Finsterwald did it in 1960, was assessed a two-stroke penalty retroactively and lost the tournament by two strokes. Arnold Palmer, in 1958, took a drop that his partner, Ken Venturi, claimed was improper. The committee ruled in Palmer's favor.
The clique of Tiger haters received a godsend at the next big tournament, where Sergio Garcia managed to paint himself as a victim of Tiger's legendary gamesmanship.
This time, Woods played into their hands. Garcia accused Woods of pulling a club early and causing a ruckus on the second hole of their Saturday round 2 weeks ago at The Players Championship, thereby distracting Garcia into making a bad shot.
Instead of simply apologizing for any distraction he might have caused Garcia during their around - an easy, gentlemanly fix - Woods instead justified pulling his club early enough to cause a distraction, blaming his action on tournament staff and accusing Garcia of being a chronic whiner.
The story percolated for 2 weeks, but it likely would have percolated for 2 decades, considering the principles. It was Sergio's talent that led golf observers to project a rivalry between him and Tiger when Rory McIlroy was 10, and it has been Sergio's petulance that has made him at least Tiger's equal in inappropriate actions and comments.
However, Sergio continued to impugn Tiger's actions after the tournament, and, with equal indulgence, Tiger refused any motion toward accountability or reconciliation.
Then, on Tuesday, Sergio ruined his legacy by becoming his generation's Fuzzy Zoeller. Asked if he might dine with Woods during the U.S. Open, Garcia cracked, "We'll have him 'round every night. We will serve fried chicken."
Garcia's misery surely worsened yesterday when 64-year-old European Tour chief George O'Grady, sounding like someone caught in an old Bond movie, asserted that Garcia is not racist because Garcia counts numerous "colored" athletes among his friends.
The best defense is not further offense.
O'Grady apologized, too. So did Zoeller.
Zoeller made his infamous remark in 1997, when he said he hoped Woods, who was running away with the Masters, wouldn't choose fried chicken as the entrée at the champion's dinner the next year. To this day, Zoeller compounds the insult by asserting that he was joking.
Asserting that a black athlete prefers fried chicken, without question, is a racist remark, issued only by a person with racist views.
Garcia has apologized profusely.
There is no doubt that Garcia is sorry, and this misstep might finally propel Garcia toward a level of maturity he may otherwise never have reached. His life of privilege, churlishness and indulgence never again will be led without gauging the weight of his words and actions.
His sponsors, chief among them TaylorMade and adidas, can view him only as a liability; TaylorMade and adidas issued a statement Wednesday that put his future in their stables in question, citing its inconsistency with "golf's values."
Make no mistake: Garcia is a huge name, despite his failure to challenge Tiger to the degree his abilities might have afforded. He ranks 10th in global career earnings.
However, if facing Woods in a playoff is enough to make Garcia hit three balls into the water in the final two holes of play at the Players, how badly will Garcia play under the burden of bigotry? That question will be answered at Merion.
It should not bother Tiger. He seems to revel in the spotlight of controversy. Other players do not fare as well.
Singh, for example, filed a lawsuit on the eve of the Players against the PGA Tour for injuring his reputation while it investigated his use of deer-antler spray, which contains a banned substance. The Tour considered a 90-day ban but, during its investigation, was informed that the substance was not typically present in amounts large enough to affect anyone using it.
Singh's profile as a player often is underappreciated. He's No. 3 in career earnings and made most of his money when others were fading away.
It would be like a player such as Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte using PDAs in the twilights of their careers.
In fact, it's exactly like that.
Singh missed the cut at the Players, contested in his backyard, at TPC Sawgrass.
Perhaps, in the absence of courtesy, justice will have to serve.