John Feinstein Blog: Golf No Longer A Gentleman’s Game

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(Credit: Jewel Samad/Getty Images)

(Credit: Jewel Samad/Getty Images)

Once upon a time the coolest thing about golf was that you made your own calls. Unlike in other sports, where bending the rules — or even breaking them — was considered part of the game, golf was the sport where it was a given that if you knew you’d violated a rule you called it on yourself.

That’s not to say there aren’t hackers who occasionally kick the ball or try to put one over on the guys they’re playing with the but the elite players — especially the pros — not only didn’t one even think about cheating, they went out of their way to make sure there was no doubt — NONE — in their own minds that they had played by the rules.

Greg Norman once disqualified himself from a tournament he was leading because he realized he was playing with a brand of ball that had not yet been approved for play by the PGA Tour. The ball was legal in every way, but the tour hadn’t yet officially stamped it as legal. No one but Norman knew the ball wasn’t legit. When he realized he’d made a mistake by playing the ball, he instantly brought it to the attention of officials and disqualified himself.

“No one ever would have known,” he said. “Except me. And I’m the one who has to live with myself.”

There are dozens and dozens of similar examples. In 1994, Davis Love III was playing in the second round of The Western Open with Tom Watson and Mike Reid. On the 14th hole, Watson asked Love to move his ball mark so he could putt through that line. Love did so and, after Watson had putted, he putted out.

Walking off the green it occurred to him that he couldn’t remember if he had moved his ball mark back. He asked Watson and Reid if they’d seen him move the mark back. Neither one had been paying attention, so they didn’t know. Even Love’s caddy wasn’t sure because he’d been raking a bunker.

“I honestly don’t know if I moved it back,” Love said. “I think I need to add one to my score.”

That penalty stroke caused Love to miss the cut by one shot. In a remarkable perfect storm series of events, he ended up missing the top 30 on the money list at the end of the year by less than $3,000. If Love had played the weekend at The Western and finished LAST he would have made about $5,500 and been in the top 30 for the year — which would have made him exempt for the 1995 Masters.

Instead, he began 1995 needing to win a tournament prior to the Masters in order to play there. At Bay Hill, he came close but faded on the back nine on Sunday. Afterwards, I asked him a question: “How are you going to feel if you miss the Masters because you called a penalty on yourself that you might not have committed?”

He looked at me as if I was nuts. “How would I feel,” he asked, “If I won the Masters and had to wonder the rest of my life if I cheated to get in?”

To me, that was the essence of what made golf cool. It never occurred to Love for a second that he’d made a mistake by penalizing himself — regardless of the cost. The golf Gods eventually got it right: Love won at New Orleans the week before Augusta and then finished second there. It would have been even better had he won but Ben Crenshaw’s victory that week — days after he was a pallbearer for his lifelong teacher Harvey Penick — wasn’t a bad story either.

I’m not here to say that there’s no honor in golf anymore. There’s plenty. But somehow golf has lost its way a little bit, especially these past few weeks.

At the Masters, Tiger Woods botched a drop on Friday after hitting his third shot into the water at No. 15 — he got a terrible break when the bal hit the flagstick and spun back into the water — and should have been penalized two shots before he signed his scorecard that day.

But Fred Ridley, the chairman of the Masters rules committee, after being tipped that there might have been an issue with Woods’ drop on No. 15, made a unilateral decision that the drop was legal. He didn’t ask any of the other rules officials to look at the tape and — worst of all — he didn’t go and talk to the player about what had happened BEFORE he signed his scorecard.

“Rules officiating 101,” David Fay, the former executive director of the U.S. Golf Association and a long-time rules expert said a few days later. “If there’s any doubt about something a player did you go talk to him before he signs his card.”

The reason it is key to talk to a player before he signs his scorecard is because if he signs for a wrong score—as in not adding penalty strokes that should be added — he’s disqualified.

That used to be without exception. That rule has been modified slightly in recent years so that if a player COULD NOT HAVE KNOWN he was signing for a wrong score, the committee has the option to not DQ him.

How can a player not know he’s signing for a wrong score? If, as in the case of Padraig Harrington a couple of years ago at Abu Dhabi, his ball is detected moving a millimeter by a slow-motion HD camera. Harrington could not have known the ball moved until he saw that replay. Back then there was no give in the rule and he was DQ’d. Now, he would have just added one to his score.

Another example: if Ridley had gone to talk to Woods after looking at the tape and believed there was no violation and told him to go ahead and sign his card but THEN after talking to other officials changed his mind, Woods would be off the hook because he had signed for a wrong score because he’d been given bad information by a member of the rules committee. He would have added two to his score and that would have been that.

But Ridley didn’t mis-inform Woods. He didn’t inform him of ANYTHING because he didn’t bother to talk to him. Thus, it was Woods’ responsibility to sign for the correct score. Because he mind-blocked on the ball-drop rule, he ended up signing for a wrong score. Not knowing a rule — or forgetting a rule — is never an excuse.

It wasn’t until Saturday that Ridley finally figured out that Woods had taken an illegal drop. Only then was he penalized and, even though he signed for a wrong score he was not disqualified. Ridley invoked Rule 33-7 — known to many as ‘the Harrington rule,’ — to keep him in the tournament. Except it didn’t apply because Woods could have known — should have known — he was signing for a wrong score.

Woods played on and, when asked if he considered withdrawing since it was his mistake that led him to sign for the wrong score said, “It never crossed my mind.”

At least he was honest. But how could it NOT cross his mind. Almost every player I’ve talked to since then — not all, but most — believed Woods should have withdrawn for the sake of golf and for his own sake.

“He was handed a golden key,” one player said. “He could have gotten out of bad guy purgatory forever by standing up and saying, ‘I don’t want an asterisk next to my name if I win.’ But if you know the guy, of course it never crossed his mind.’”

That’s too bad. Because Woods is, arguably, the greatest player of all time and yet he clearly believes—unlike Davis Love or Greg Norman or MOST golfers — that winning is the only thing that matters.

Remarkably, on Wedensday, NINETEEN days after the incident, the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club issued a statement which is perhaps the single most confusing document since the Magna Charta. It basically said this: the player got it wrong; the Masters people got it wrong; the rule they cited was mis-appllied but BECAUSE everyone got it wrong, allowing Woods to play was right.


Of course a day earlier The PGA Tour issued a similarly baffling statement on the subject of three-time major champion Vijay Singh. In January, Singh admitted to taking Deer Antler Spray—which contains a substance banned by the World anti-doping Agency (WADA) and thus the PGA Tour—because he had ignored a warning against the substance issued by the tour almost tour years ago.

Singh said he took it. The tour rules say saying you took a banned substance is the same as testing positive for a banned substance. The tour told Singh he was going to be suspended. Singh appealed. During the appeal WADA told the tour this — read carefully it’s confusing: We no longer consider someone to have tested positive unless there’s an actual test. AND, by the way, there IS no test currently that is viable for detecting this substance.

Got that? The substance is banned; admitting you took it does NOT make you guilty but you can’t be tested for it.

So, Singh skated on a remarkable technicality.

Was he relieved, grateful, sorry for his mistake? Steve Sands, who works for The Golf Channel and — unlike most in the media, gets along with Singh — approached him on Tuesday to ask him how he felt about dodging the suspension bullet.

“F—- you,” Singh said. When Sands, thinking Singh might have been trying to be funny asked him again Singh said the same two words again.

So much for golf being a game of honor or — as they used to say — a gentleman’s game.

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