Kevin Garside: Well-heeled folk of Jacksonville are a world away from grim reality

The Way I See It: The heavenly scene in north Florida was one of epic triviality

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The Independent Online

Is there a greater expression of human liberty than sport? It was hard to think of a better example of society at play than golf in the sunny state of Florida in early May. The sun was out, well-heeled folks mingled in their finery on grassy banks sipping mint juleps as millionaire golfers strode by.

There was no necessary expertise in the crowd. The Players Championship on the north Florida coast in Jacksonville is an event much like Wimbledon or the Henley Regatta, a place to see and be seen. The greater part of the joy for many was derived from the sense of occasion. It didn’t seem to matter who was winning, though the proximity of Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy provoked its own microsurge in excitement.

This heavenly scene was one of epic triviality and of significance. To the spectator there was no consequence attached to outcomes. To the players, the golfing industry, the local economy and the American Exchequer, there was money to be made and paid. We should never understate the value of sport to the gross domestic product. At the same time, the lightness of being at its core was made almost unbearable by the contrast offered 1,000 miles to the north, where career diplomat Gregory Hicks was giving evidence to a committee in Washington on the 2012 attack at the US Consulate in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

The testimony of Hicks was achingly compelling and delivered about the same time as Lee Westwood was teeing off in his practice round at Sawgrass with Jeff Maggert and Scott Piercy. Hicks, taking sips of water to stem the upward well of emotion clawing at his throat, detailed the extraordinary bravery of his staff in their response to the chilling attack on their lives. The ambassador was dead, others feared the same fate. Panic was everywhere, yet in this hellish extremis his colleagues showed unstinting levels of courage in the service of each other that brought Hicks to tears before the watching nation. Over in Sawgrass, Westwood joked with Piercy about his goatee.

The testimony of Hicks was sympathetically received by those who believed that the elders in the American administration had not served their people well in the response they gave to the assault. There was outrage, too, at the overtly political response at the top of the food chain, the pre-election spinning of events that day sanctioned by the Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and President, Barack Obama.

Let us remove ourselves for a moment from the rights and wrongs of that tragic episode and imagine Martians observing the behaviour of this weird species inhabiting earth. How might the report on the nature of humankind read on the red planet? What, these blokes try to kill each other in one earthly neighbourhood while simultaneously in another engage in something called sport in settings that could not be further removed from death and destruction? Are you sure?

The absurdity of the human condition and the extremes it permits came crashing across the sporting landscape a second time at Sawgrass, captured simply by a name. That name was Castro. As the grim details continued to emerge from a house in Cleveland, where one Castro had held captive for 10 years three young women, another Castro, Roberto, was being hailed for the 63 he shot on Thursday to equal the course record and open a three-shot lead at the richest tournament in golf, the Players Championship.

Perhaps we need never be too concerned about the prospects of earth’s colonisation by extraterrestrials. How would they make sense of it all? Why would they bother? Or maybe we should welcome a visit from superior beings so that they might bang heads together and enforce a global perspective on this thing called life.

At the civilised end of the organisational spectrum available to human beings in Florida, conflict was a matter only for the rules of golf, and settled by bogeys, birdies and pars. What’s the worst that can happen on a golf course? Sergio and Tiger might cross handbags behind the 18th green. Their combustible relationship flared again at the weekend over decorum, the essential code when an opponent is playing a shot. It was golf’s version of EastEnders: Do what? Leave it out! You’re ’avin’ a laugh. Sort it!

Meanwhile, in merciless Bangladesh, another body is being pulled from a factory unfit for purpose. It’s a mad world all right. And we are the lucky ones, free to indulge our sporting fantasies on a daily basis unencumbered by the fight to stay alive.

What was it Bill Shankly said of football? It’s not a matter of life or death, it’s more important than that. You have to laugh.