Dec
21
2010
SHOCK CLAIM: Golfers Bend Rules When No One Is Looking
By Stephanie Wei under European PGA Tour

Oh boy. You know when you found out Santa was just some heavyset bearded guy wearing a costume? Or that Tony Parker was sexting ladies not named Eva Longoria? This must-read story by John Huggan in the Scotsman may evoke similar emotions for the self-righteous, adorably idealistic folks who (still) believe golfers are morally superior human beings. You know, because they call rules infractions on themselves. Well,  bad news — cheating is rampant in competition, says Huggan. Even an unnamed multiple major champion is a repeat offender. Yep, honestly! Hurry, someone get Jim Nantz a tissue.

You may not want to hear this, but golf at every level is rife with cheating. Well, OK, rife may be too strong a word. But it’s out there, at every level of the game up to and including the professional level, where the temptation to transgress is obviously increased by the often huge financial rewards available.

You’ll never read the names of those involved though. Officialdom doesn’t want you to know who they are (and the legal implications of publicly exposing the culprits don’t help either). Some, in fact, are really quite famous. One multiple major champion, by way of example, is a notorious cheat and the subject of any number of head-shaking locker room tales. Ryder Cup players are not immune either. At least one is tainted forever by his serial cheating. And there are others, many of whom have won events through the most dubious of methods.

Every year it goes on and on, right up to the present day. During this past season on the European Tour there was at least one instance where a pro, outraged by the behaviour of his playing companion, refused to sign that fellow competitor’s card. Not that anything came of it. In such instances, tour officials invariably take it upon themselves to attest the disputed numbers.

Which Ryder Cup player?? Monty? I know there was an incident in Asia (I think?) awhile ago. But it’s a fine line and I don’t like throwing around the word “cheater.” That is damning for people’s reputation, especially if it was indeed an innocent mistake. Plus, sometimes it’s difficult to determine intent.

For years, one particular player – a huge star in his homeland – has been something of a joke when it comes to the rules. Playing abroad – something he did only rarely – his drives were of above average length but hardly spectacular. At home, he was the longest man out there. Conclusion? At home his ball was “hot” and surely illegal, which is perhaps why his bag was never seen without a caddie/guard standing beside it.

Now that sounds a tad like a rumor that got spun out of control. (But I guess where there’s smoke, there’s fire?) Let the witch hunt begin!

Huggan is right, though. While golfers call penalty strokes on themselves, like Brian Davis did on national TV at Hilton Head, rules are bent all the time. Thing is, where’s the line between using the rules to your advantage — which of course,  you should, but even then, that can be unfairly accused of cheating — and intentionally trying to gain a competitive advantage? It’s gray. The rules enforcers like to preach that golf’s rules are black and white, but there are so many shades of gray. Well, that’s why there’s the 10,000-page decision manual. Sorry, but no one can predict every possible scenario in the world.

Take this scenario.  At the Deutsche Bank Championship in September — keeping in the spirit of not naming names — an esteemed multiple major champ knocked his ball into the hazard behind the 10th green. After determining his drop area (two clublengths, no closer to the hole), the player carefully examined the patchy grass as if he were calculating where the best place to drop was. There was no way he’d get a good lie with a straight-up drop (because of the crappy terrain, grass and hardpan, etc). The player attempted his first drop. Whoops! The ball went forward on a slightly uphill ground. Next try. Same thing!

Now, according to the Rules of Golf, the player gets to place the ball on the spot closest to where the ball landed, which in this case, turned out to be a nice fluffy green patch. Obviously I can’t be sure, but having done the same procedure countless times in competitive rounds, it seemed pretty obvious that the player intended to “accidentally” drop the ball closer to the hole. (Because if not, he would have stepped farther back.) I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s spent hours practicing this forward drop.

Was this player cheating? No. After all, he was just using the rules to his advantage. It gets fuzzy if we question whether there was intent to gain a competitive advantage. Which is impossible to determine. Technically, it’s not cheating. (I mean, I wish I had been wily enough in junior golf to practice the forward drop!) But perhaps the better question is, could this be considered acting against the spirit of the game? Again, the answer is subjective.

A second anecdote shared by Intern Kevin would perhaps be considered cheating. Last year at the Nationwide Tour event in Raleigh, Intern Kevin witnessed a player, who we’ll call Eli, knock his drive into the hazard. From the tee, he couldn’t see where the ball crossed the hazard line. Eli received differing info from two people. The first guy said it crossed in one place, which was where Intern Kevin saw, too. But the marshal said it was 40 yards farther up the fairway, a much more favorable position to reach the green. “Eli disregarded the correct info in order to drop 40 yards ahead of where he should have,” claims Intern Kevin.

Accusations of Eli cheating are somewhat dicey. He was simply listening to the marshal, whose job is to track errant shots. But apparently from the tee, it was obvious that Eli’s ball didn’t cross where the marshal said it did. While I trust Intern Kevin’s opinion, there’s no way to prove that Eli was aware he was taking a drop from the wrong place. And if memory serves me right, as long as your playing partners agree on the point of entry, then it’s kosher.

I didn’t witness this situation, obviously, but again, it’s in the gray area. We can’t prove that Eli intentionally tried to gain a competitive advantage. He followed everything by the book. Perhaps he could have questioned the marshal’s judgment since the two opinions were so distinct — that is, if he didn’t.

Next, there was reportedly a cheating incident at La Costa on the LPGA earlier in the year. Which writers have said was allegedly the last straw for Lorena Ochoa, who reported the violation, and the following week, she announced her retirement. (Update: I misspoke. To my knowledge, no one was named in any reports, but a few weeks ago, I was informed by a respected journalist about the situation. Also, Golfweek‘s Beth Ann Baldry wrote a column that included comments from Ochoa about the alleged cheating episode.)

Like I’ve said, there’s a very fine line between using the rules to your benefit (which was how junior golfers are conned into memorizing the Rules of Golf) and cheating with intent. And then there are those rules that cost people major titles and hundreds of thousands for accidentally breaking a rule that doesn’t give them any competitive advantage. Alright, my head is starting to hurt from all this philosophical thinking! Seriously though, there’s so much gray involved, barring unfortunate situations like grounding the club in a bunker or hazard on national television.

What’s the solution to Huggan’s claim of the epidemic cheating problem on Tour? Or in all levels of the game? Step one: accepting that just because golf is a game of integrity, it doesn’t mean every golfer is the second coming of Bobby Jones. Step two: “Officialdom doesn’t want you to know who they are,” says Huggan. Maybe it’s time for the powers-that-be to stop covering up — if that is, indeed, what’s happening.

I still like to believe that the majority of golfers do call penalties on themselves. In my experiences, it’s practically second instinct to immediately announce a double hit. Same when accidentally causing the ball to move. Etc.

However, my curiosity is officially piqued by Huggan’s anecdotes. Do you know who these people are? Have you ever seen anyone cheat in the pro ranks? Please share. And discuss.