And the sporting snake oil salesman award goes to . . . golf

Modern sport thrives on flogging shortcuts to success, but golf has honed it to a fine art

Groucho Marx: Accepted that he’d never be Rory McIlroy or whoever was the top golfer of his day

With so much hand-wringing about complex additives getting added to the sporting palate, it’s almost reassuring to note the continuing commercial appeal of that most basic of supplements: good old-fashioned snake oil.

In fact, it would be interesting to shove a lot of these magical chemical compounds under independent microscopes to establish how much of their supposed “faster-higher-stronger” properties are rooted more in salesmanship than science.

Because you can flog anything to anybody if they want to believe in it enough. And when it comes to securing an edge, a lot of people are desperate enough to believe anything.

It’s little wonder then so much of the business of modern sport is an ocean of commercial humbug upon which floats a vast array of business models flogging shortcuts to success.


It can be gluten-free success. Or sensory models of holistic success known only to cod-wellness gurus spouting Californian balls about energy.

Shiny book deal

Of course, there’s always the successfully reliable coach-as-messiah bit too. That usually comes accompanied by a faithful sidekick psychologist packaging various shades of positivity into a cosily inclusive and empathetic bundle with a shiny book-deal ribbon on top.

The more literal-minded tend to favour science as a less fluffy alternative. And that’s always great because the jargon’s so persuasive.

It’s why the gym game has so successfully turned going for a walk into a basal-metabolic experience tapered to the individual BPM. Or how the drinks industry has transformed water into a squeezy glycogenic refuel with a handy flip-up lid.

As for nutrition, well, let’s not really go there: some fish oils just jump out of the barrel into the net. Except they can lose eicosapentaenoic value in transit so best to buy in capsule form.

In fact, there's so much bogus cure-all crap promising to unlock that vital 1 per cent that my original idea was for yet another "Top 10" list including stuff like that craze at last year's Olympics for "cupping". Michael Phelps padded around the pool in Rio with bruises on his body suggesting he'd been in a fight. Except they were actually the result of "therapists" setting fire to secret mixtures in "special" cups which were then clamped to the skin to remove toxins.

Mystic east bit

It was a modern-day doozy because apparently the ancient Egyptians used to do it. And the Chinese too. So obviously, you know, it’s credible; the inscrutable mystic east bit and all that.

It helped that Phelps won all around him too, so try definitively arguing it isn’t rubbish. Or that Phelps could have got the same benefit if he’d applied cups of burning horseshit to his backside so long as he believed enough it made him swim faster.

Apparently, golf equipment is going through a commercial rough patch in the US at the moment

But then I read about Rory McIlroy heading to this week’s US Open having signed a $100 million deal to use one firm’s clubs and realised nothing compares to the Golf Delusion.

Apparently, golf equipment is going through a commercial rough patch in the US at the moment, but it’s still predicted to generate up to $3 billion this year. Throw in clothing too and the golf gear game generates over a billion every year in the UK alone.

Globally, it’s expected golf equipment and “consumables” will be worth $15 billion by 2020 now that the Asian-Pacific market is taking off. So much for eastern wisdom then. Clearly even they find it impossible to believe golfing inadequacy might come down to a lack of talent.

No poor kid in the barrio thinks they're going to conquer world football because they've Messi boots

Instead it’s always the clubs, obviously. They’re rubbish. That 500-quid driver might as well be a hurley compared to a new model that costs a grand.

Wonky balls

My own balls are wonky so I’ll get my hands on Rory’s. They’ll make me a new man. And buying one of those tighty-whitey T-shirts might tighten up the fade and maybe even make me pull instead.

And then if I pay in advance there might still be a slot in the club pro’s clinic. And if I throw that DVD about five easy steps to better course management on top of the miniature scaffolding designed by experts to keep the head still when putting, well, you never know.

It’s unsophisticated but irresistible, this industry devoted to persuading people that stuff is the cure-all. It’s also very peculiar to golf. No poor kid in the barrio thinks they’re going to conquer world football because they’ve Messi boots.

But grizzled titans of commerce who’d cut their mother’s throat for a share option are prepared to believe this bullshit. It was when I read some Marx and realised golf repeats itself as farce that I realised they always have and probably always will.

Playing bad golf

It's almost 60 years since comedy's greatest revolutionary wrote in his autobiography Groucho & Me that he'd been playing bad golf for 30 years and "with cheating I usually shoot around 95. However, if my opponent is smart enough to count my strokes I invariably shoot 101."

It's hard not to conclude this vast industry isn't so much about golf as it is about status

The funniest man ever to draw breath then pointed out how he’d bought every golf book, listened to every coach and visited damn near every course before concluding: “It doesn’t make any difference where I play or what equipment I use. At the end of 18 holes my score is always 101!”

In fact, it’s hard not to conclude this vast industry isn’t so much about golf as it is about status. If you can afford this garbage then you fit in. Not every golfer can be so gullible as to believe the con. But maybe membership means it doesn’t matter.

Which possibly explains Groucho’s crack about not wanting to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. Either way, it’s easy to believe golf will profitably top the snake oil handicap for a long time to come.