I could say I play golf, but maybe a more accurate description would be I play at golf. In all honesty, I’m not very good. That’s what this post is about…honesty. Golf is one of the few places where honesty and integrity are bound up with the sport itself. In professional golf, there are no referees. The players themselves are honor bound to play by the rules. If a player sees another player commit an infraction of The Rules of Golf, he or she is required to report it. It almost never comes to that though, because the player who committed the infraction, however inadvertently, will call the penalty on himself. (I’m going to abandon political correctness here for the sake of language simplification and stop saying he or she; he will have to suffice. I don’t hate women, but I do hate having the reader constantly tripping over “he/she” every time I would be forced to write it.)
The Rules of Golf were written by a group of the most anal Scotsmen ever to walk on grass. They were first set down by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland in 1754. Most casual golfers don’t even know all the rules, much less abide by them. That doesn’t make them bad people necessarily, it’s just that the rules are extremely complicated, and learning them requires more effort than the average weekend golfer is prepared to invest. Also, the penalties for infractions are very harsh and can just destroy a golfer’s score, if not disqualify him from the round altogether. Strict adherence to the rules would generate too many arguments in what is supposed to be a social game, and a four-hour round of golf would stretch out to six. However, winking at the rules does not apply to professional golfers. They take pride in knowing and following every single rule, no matter how stupid it may seem.
For example, Brian Davis, a talented English player who has yet to win on the PGA tour, was tied for the lead after regulation play had ended in a recent tournament. During the ensuing playoff, he hit his ball down into some long grass off the fairway. On his next shot, while taking his backswing, his club moved a single, long blade of grass. Brian then made a good swing and hit his ball up near the green to a spot where he could easily get it into the hole for his first tournament win. Davis stopped play and asked a PGA official to review the videotape to see if he had brushed the grass on his backswing. The review showed that he had. This is deemed by the Rules of Golf as “improving your lie” (as if brushing that single blade of grass gave the player any advantage). Result: Davis was assessed a two stroke penalty and lost the tournament. He was the only one who knew that his club may have glanced off that blade of grass, and yet he did not hesitate to call an official’s attention to the possible rules infraction, costing himself the win.
This kind of self-policing in golf is not an isolated incident. A few weeks ago, a PGA Tour rookie named Webb Simpson was ahead by a couple of strokes in the Zurich Classic. He was playing well on the last day of the tournament and it looked like nobody was going to catch him. While taking a stance to tap in a six-inch putt, he set his putter down behind the ball, not touching the ball mind you. Something, probably the wind, caused the ball to oscillate, moving fractionally and then coming to rest in its original position. Simpson stepped away from the ball and called over his playing partner and a tour official to review the situation. The Rules of Golf state that if a ball oscillates because of wind, that is OK; no penalty is assessed. In this case though, because Simpson had set his putter down behind the ball, he is deemed to have caused the ball to move; penalty 1 stroke. Nobody but Simpson saw that ball move, yet despite being a rookie and maybe a little nervous to be holding the lead in pursuit of his first tournament win, he had the character to call the penalty on himself knowing the consequences. The incident had to rattle him and he went on to finish second.
Maybe the most famous rules violation in golf happened in 1968 when Roberto DeVicenzo, a talented player from Argentina, had seemingly tied for the lead in the Masters, arguably the most prestigious tournament in golf. At the end of the day, De Vicenzo was tied with Bob Goalby. The two should have returned on Monday for an 18-hole playoff. Except that De Vicenzo's final-round playing partner, Tommy Aaron, had made a mistake on De Vicenzo's scorecard. Aaron gave De Vicenzo a par (4) on the 17th hole rather than the birdie (3) De Vicenzo had actually made. De Vicenzo failed to catch the error. When he signed the scorecard, De Vicenzo was guilty of turning in an incorrect scorecard. Under the rules of golf, the higher score that De Vicenzo signed for stood, meaning that he was credited with a 66 rather than the 65 he actually shot. And meaning that he was one stroke off the lead rather than tied and heading into a playoff. A wide television audience had witnessed him shoot the 65, but to no avail. DeVicenzo was awarded second place and deprived of a possible win that at the time would have been an enormous boost to golf in South America.
It would have been easy, even expected, for these players to whine about the Rules of Golf being so penal for what most of us would agree were insignificant violations. Instead, their responses in every case were the same: “It’s my fault. As a professional I should know the rules by which this game is played, and if I break them I must accept the consequences.” How refreshing and rare to hear such sentiments expressed. How nice it would be to hear a lying, thieving politician say something comparable after being caught in some ridiculous lie that would earn them the Pinocchio Award. I used to believe that ethics meant doing the right thing, but there is a better definition: “Doing the right thing when nobody is looking.” Amen to that, and hats off to professional golf for living by the rules.
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