I imagine the scene at Tuesday night’s European Tour Player Awards Gala like this:
The victorious European Ryder Cup team takes the stage to applause after being introduced by Golf Channel personality Steve Sands, the event’s emcee. Players smile and waive to acknowledge the crowd, they are laughing with one another as captain Jose Maria Olazabel hoists the Ryder Cup. Steve Sands begins with some questions and remarks for the players. He flippantly asks Sergio Garcia if he plans to have Tiger Woods over for dinner at next month’s US Open at Merion Golf Club. Garcia tries to make a joke with his response but instead you hear the sound of a record scratching to a stop and every head jerks around with mouths agape as if the whole says in unison “Did he just say…?”
Well apparently that’s not exactly what happened according to Sands on Wednesday’s Morning Drive on Golf Channel. He described the scene as a mix between nervous laughter and nervous gasps.
In his Wednesday press conference Rory McIlroy said his reaction was “uh…uh…?” an unsure feeling.
What Garcia said was that he would have Woods over for dinner every night and “serve him fried chicken.”
What Sergio did was step in a pile of, well, you know.
But this isn’t about fried chicken. It’s not about what fried chicken has to do with race. It’s not even about Sergio and Tiger anymore. This is 100% about Sergio. And it’s really too bad.
In his press conference Wednesday Garcia stated that he was caught off guard by the question. Steve Sands asked a bad question with no good answer. He made a joke with the question about Sergio and Tiger having dinner and, as Sands himself reported, Sergio was trying to add to the joke.
I am not trying to absolve Garcia here, because he is the one who made the statement. But it is fair to say that Sands asked a bad question and shouldn’t have gone to the Tiger vs. Sergio well.
Sergio could have taken the Tiger route and said flatly, “No.” This worked for Woods earlier this week when he was asked in a press conference if he planned to bury the hatchet with Sergio. Woods’ two-letter response made his position clear.
Sergio could have followed Jason Whitlock of foxsports.com’s advice:
” “We’ll have porn stars serve him dinner from Perkins restaurant.”
This is a direct shot at Woods’ well-documented extra-marital affairs.
But instead Sergio took the race route, not a great move. Honestly, it’s a bigger choke than Carnoustie, Oakland Hills and Sawgrass combined.
Fuzzy Zoeller’s comments about Woods at the 1997 Masters resulted in Zoeller losing sponsorships and being labeled a racist. Sergio said he was not aware of the Zoeller comments until Wednesday morning, hard to believe, but also not relevant.
There are lessons to be learned here. One is for Sergio and the other is for the rest of us.
For Sergio the lesson is obvious: AVOID RACIAL JOKES AS A PUBLIC FIGURE. No good will ever come from them. Garcia said in his apology Wednesday that he did not intend the comments to be taken in a racist way. The problem is that it’s not about how the speaker intends the comments, it’s how they are perceived by the listener.
It seemed that Sergio’s feet were not held to the fire by the assembled media at the Wentworth Club Wednesday for the press conference. I’d wager that Sergio’s press conference at the US Open in three weeks (his next event in the US) might feature more pointed questions and last longer than 15 minutes as was the case Wednesday. Garcia needs to understand that this will not go away after one press conference. If Zoeller’s case is an indication, it will stay with Sergio for a long, long time. Here is what comes up when you search “Fuzzy Zoeller” on Google:
This is a shame because Zoeller won 10 times on the PGA Tour including the 1979 Masters and the 1984 US Open. But making racially insensitive comments in a public forum is one of the cardinal sins of American culture.
The lesson for the rest of us is to not fall into the easy trap of labeling Sergio Garcia as a racist. Doing so would imply that Garcia has a pattern of behavior where he displays insensitivity toward racial diversity and takes stereotypes and generalizations about different racial groups as fact.
None of us know what is in the mind and heart of Sergio Garcia. He certainly seemed contrite at his press conference Wednesday. However he does deserve the public backlash he is enduring because of his misstep.
Going forward how does this affect Sergio?
I’m afraid this could fulfill his own prophecy from last year’s Masters that he does not have the mental acuity to win a major championship. I certainly would not pick him at the US Open this year.
Garcia has shown a fragile mental game in the past, most recently at the beginning of his latest spat with Tiger Woods two weeks ago at The Players Championship.
To his credit Garcia did not try to blame anyone else, he took full responsibility for his comments and did not withdraw from the BMW PGA Championship this week (which is more than can be said for Vijay Singh).
Again, the bigger exam of Sergio’s contrition will come at Merion when he faces the American media for the first time. Here’s hoping Sergio passes the test.