As you have probably heard by now, locked in a sudden death playoff with Jim Furyk at the Verizon Heritage, Brian Davis called a two-stroke penalty on himself. Following a gutsy approach shot into the 18th green, Davis found himself in the hazard left of the green — safe from the Calibogue Sound, but in a tough position. Immediately after he hit the wedge, which sailed 30 feet past the hole, he called over rules official Slugger White for clarification because he brushed a stray reed in his backswing.
Turns out Davis breached Rule 13-4 of the Rules of Golf, which states that a player can’t touch a loose impediment — like the reed — during his takeaway in a hazard. Had the reed been rooted in the ground, there would be no penalty. Of course brushing the pesky weed didn’t give Davis any advantage, so it would seem like another one of those silly rules. But rules are rules.
After the two-stroke penalty had been assigned, Davis was lying 5 while Furyk was lying 3 with four-feet left for his par. To be clear, calling the infraction on himself didn’t necessarily cost him the tournament (along with the $400,000+ in prize money and two-year exemption on the PGA Tour). He would have had to sink the 30-footer to extend the playoff. He missed after the penalty was inflicted, and we don’t know what would have happened under different circumstances. But that’s not really the point either. Davis was familiar with the rule, without hesitation brought it to the attention of the rules official. Now, he’s being painted as the most virtuous man to have played the game since Bobby Jones.
As Jim Nantz so eloquently crooned, “Brian Davis, a whole lot of people are going to be a fan of his after what you just witnessed, a moment of honor.”
Clearly I like what he did and my respect for him has tripled. I would hope that any player would have done the same thing. And sure, many would have, but this type of incident happens more than we think — just not during a playoff with CBS cameras focused in on the shot as thousands of armchair rules officials are watching the replay over and over in slow motion. Had Davis not called it, the phone lines at CBS and the PGA Tour would have been jammed with concerned citizens pointing out the violation and calling Davis’ integrity into question.
But in a different situation, it seems Davis would have made the same move. Afterward, he said, “I could not have lived with myself if I had not.”
An interesting point of contrast is the much-discussed debacle with Michelle Wie three weeks ago. Oh, you know, when she embarrassingly spent 20 minutes in the video van trying to argue with rules officials over grounding her club in the hazard. It just wasn’t fair because from a philosophical point of view, they couldn’t have known if she felt off-balance.
Here’s where I have a problem — and it’s certainly not with the man of the hour. Whenever players call penalties on themselves, golf writers immediately turn the clock back eighty-five years to dig up that famous Bobby Jones quote. You know, the one from the 1925 US Open when nobody else but Jones saw his ball move before he hit it, but he called it on himself, received a two-stroke penalty and ended up losing by a shot. When praised for the honorable gesture, he replied, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”
Now it’s a fantastic quote and sums up the integrity of the game, but it bothers me when the golf world uses Davis’ actions as an example of golf’s moral superiority. In a hushed, dramatic tone, Nantz, who is apparently the voice of morality these days, warbled, “I want you to know at home that Brian Davis is the one who brought it to the tour staff’s attention; he called it on himself.” Perhaps it wasn’t his intention, but to me, it seemed like Nantz was implying that golf and golfers have a greater moral fiber than, say, the basketball player who argues with a ref over a foul call.
Others appear to have followed suit as it felt like I read a dozen stories today applauding Davis for his “What Would Bobby Jones Do” move, which was just another example of why golf is the greatest game in the world. Give me a break. Yeah, golf is a sport (which some contend it isn’t even one), where players call penalties on themselves — it has a long-standing tradition of honor and integrity. But please, let’s refrain from getting on our high horses to say that golfers have stronger moral aptitude than other athletes. It’s totally different.
Most other sports are heavily officiated and those officials make bad calls sometimes. An umpire might call strike three on a pitch that’s high and outside, which impacts the outcome of a big game. But sometimes those so-called bad calls weigh in a player’s favor — it ultimately balances out. Just like in golf, sometimes there are bad breaks and seemingly lame rules, but other times, the rules can work to benefit the player. It’s all part of the game, right?
No doubt I’m impressed with Davis, but I might be even more impressed with a guy who calls a violation on himself in a heavily-officiated team sport. Can you imagine Kobe Bryant stopping play mid-game to notify the ref he stepped out of bounds? Probably not. But that doesn’t make golf and golfers morally superior to other sports and sportsmen. Just different games with different sets of rules and expectations.
[Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images]