From lawsuits to racial remarks, it's been a rough year in golf

Ernie Els flashed that easy smile when he saw a reporter walking toward the clubhouse at the TPC Sawgrass earlier this month.

"This must be great for you guys," he said through his laughter. "Come out to the PGA Tour and every week they hand you another story."

And he wasn't talking about Adam Scott winning the Masters.

The debate over anchored strokes and long putters. Deer antler spray. Rule 33-7. A player cleared of an anti-doping violation on a technicality, and then suing his own tour. Players hiring an attorney over a new rule related to the long putter.

And this was before the public spat between Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods took an ugly turn that brought overtures of racism back into golf.

"It's been quite a controversial year for golf," Lee Westwood said.

Woods already has won four times on the PGA Tour going into the Memorial, a tournament he already has won five times in his career. So when someone asked Westwood on Tuesday if there was a sense that the No. 1 player was on the verge of going on a big run, Westwood looked mildly perplexed.

"I think he's on one, isn't he?" Westwood said. "How many tournaments has he played this year? He's won more than 50 percent."

But any talk of Woods is sure to include the illegal drop he took at the Masters, the two-shot penalty he received the next day, the incorrect scorecard with his signature on it and Augusta National invoking Rule 33-7, which gave it discretion to disregard the penalty of disqualification for the incorrect scorecard.

That debate lost steam when Vijay Singh sued the tour the day before The Players Championship began at TPC Sawgrass, where the Fijian spent years honing a game that brought him nearly $70 million in earnings and a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Lawsuits against the tour are rare, but the details of this one were bizarre.

"Nobody has ever sued the tour for being cleared of getting a drug violation," Padraig Harrington said.

WADA warned against deer antler spray. Vijay Singh used deer antler spray. The tour proposed a six-month suspension. Singh appealed. WADA said deer antler spray was no longer the same concern. Singh was off the hook. And then Singh sued the tour.

The good news for PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was the lawsuit was largely forgotten three days later. The bad news for the tour was why it was forgotten.

Singh vs. PGA Tour felt like an undercard compared with Garcia vs. Woods.

The Spaniard threw a sucker punch during a rain delay by suggesting Woods was the cause of a commotion in their final group of the third round. Woods fired back by calling out Garcia for his constant complaining, which led Garcia to say Woods wasn't the nicest guy on tour. And with no interest by either side in a truce, Garcia tried to make a joke about having Woods over for fried chicken, and he wound up with egg on his face.

Garcia threw out the racial stereotype the same day that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and U.S. Golf Association introduced Rule 14-1b, effective in 2016, that would ban the anchored stroke used for long putters — like the one Scott used when he won the Masters, or the one Els used at the British Open, and Webb Simpson in the U.S. Open, and the ones used by Tim Clark and Carl Pettersson their entire pro careers.

At least three players, including Scott, have retained a lawyer as they wait to see whether the PGA Tour goes along with the new rule. The tour met with its Player Advisory Council on Tuesday at Muirfield Village, the first step toward figuring out which direction it will go.

According to one PAC member at the meeting, there was passion on both sides of the debate, which was not surprising. And there was no consensus, also not surprising. This was only a conversation, and from all indications, no one called anyone names.

So much for golf's reputation as a genteel sport.

"Is it bad for golf?" Nick Watney said Tuesday afternoon. "It depends on your theory of publicity. If you had the Kardashian feeling that any publicity is good publicity, then it's good. If you're a purist in terms of golf, then it's bad. The lawsuits, the rule change, the little feud going on. My view is that it's bad. This is supposed to be a gentleman's game. We're different from a lot of other pro sports."

This isn't the first time golf has gone way beyond birdies and bogeys.

There was the lawsuit involving Ping and the square grooves in the 1980s. There was Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, leading the breakaway from the PGA of America to start what is now the PGA Tour at the end of the 1960s. Imagine if Woods and Phil Mickelson did something like that today.

"It's not a perfect game," Curtis Strange said. "Some people believe there's no such thing as bad press, but it seems like we're still having growing issues. We're learning how to handle doping issues, although nobody has learned to do that yet. I'm been reading about Lance Armstrong all day."

It always seemed like some other sport's problems, and now some of those problems belong to golf.

"It's been great on the golf course — fantastic, really," Geoff Ogilvy said. "Tiger has won four times. The Masters was amazing again. Any time golf is in the newspaper, it's a good thing for us. Obviously, the Sergio-Tiger thing wasn't good. But it has been a tumultuous year."

And it's not anything Finchem can make go away with a wave of his hand. Considering that golf is a niche sport, maybe that's not the worst thing.

"Outside the ropes, golf is probably more interesting than it ever has been," Robert Garrigus said. "I don't think it's all that bad if it makes our sport more interesting. There might be a few more people come out to the U.S. Open."

That would be good for golf. Maybe not so much for Garcia.