For the channel surfer with an appreciation of the sublimely bad in television, last weekend's Isuzu Celebrity Golf Championship was a pure gem of trashsport.
Staged on a golf course framed by casinos, in Stateline, Nev., last Friday's first round gave us the semiluminous patchwork of Bryant Gumbel, Joe Namath and Tom Dreesen shooting 82s, while the Dadaistic threesome of Smokey Robinson, Dan Quayle and Charles Barkley all raced home in 89. For sheer camp it approached Joe Frazier's nearly drowning in three feet of water during the swimming competition on the first Superstars.
Like most creations of its genre, this year's edition of the Celebrity Golf Championship suffered from an inherent problem, known among trashsport devotees as the Kyle Rote Jr. syndrome (after the zero-charisma, three-time winner of the Superstars). The best players in the field ( Al Del Greco, Jack Marin and winner Rick Rhoden) placed an enormous strain on the word celebrity, while the best playing celebrities ( Michael Jordan, John Elway, Mike Schmidt and Mario Lemieux) all strained to be competitive.
And yet, this was an event in its fifth year on a major network, with a $400,000 purse. The anchor of a seven-event Celebrity Golf Association tour, it has television ratings competitive with and on occasion higher than the PGA Tour event it is pitted against. It has already outlived the average lifespan of a trashsport event, which suggests that it is not so much about celebrity at all.
No, what the Celebrity Golf Championship is really about, with apologies to purists who consider the Skins Game akin to pornography, is golf. As much as it might offend the lofty captains of the USGA and the R&A, there is hardly a better endorsement of golf as the greatest game of all than the CGA.
In the last decade golf has become one of the strongest common bonds among the most famous athletes of their day. These are men with the leisure, the money and the ability to choose any sport or pastime to satiate their considerable appetites for competition. In disproportionate numbers, they have chosen golf.
Some of the reasons are obvious. At its most basic level, golf makes the same sense for a professional or ex-professional athlete as it does for the average hacker. It offers a low risk of injury, doesn't require a lot of conditioning, can be played well into old age and is a natural to share with friends. Besides, it's fun to watch the ball fly through the air.
The more than 50 athletes who compete regularly on the CGA tour, however, have not just chosen hit-and-giggle golf but rather the putt-everything-out, follow-the-rules, choke-athon variety. Tournament golf.
It's a test that provides a powerful attraction for an individual whose identity has been shaped by competition. Strip away those qualities that are essentially a given at the top level of any sport—skill and conditioning—and you are left with the essential core, the mental game.
All else being equal, mental skills determine winning and losing. Golf tends to appeal to the greatest athletes because, along with its aesthetics, it puts a premium on mental skills. It is no accident that Jordan, the on-court master of allowing his mind to make his body do what it needs to do when the pressure is most paralyzing, is obsessed with the game.