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JFK Sports. John F. Kennedy,ClubEG Columnist | Twitter

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What Sets Golf Apart

The recent Mike Weir rules incident at the Canadian Open got me to thinking about the rules of golf.

Actually not so much the rules themselves, since much has been written about this topic by people who know a lot more about the rules than I. But I started considering the application of the rules and this idea that each player is expected to regulate him or herself.

Sure in professional golf there are on course officials and video replays and viewers calling in but in the end the onus is still largely on the players to officiate themselves. 

And certainly in amateur and club golf this responsibility falls almost entirely on the players. It’s something that is unique to golf and has always been part of the game, so much so that we perhaps now take it for granted.

But when you consider golf in the context of other sports you realize how truly remarkable this is.

The words honour and integrity have long been associated with golf to the point that they are now often perceived as clichés rather than actual virtues. But think how strange it would be if we transposed the values commonly shown on the golf course onto other sports.

Can you imagine a baseball player diving to make a catch in the outfield and as the hitter is called out the fielder motions to the umpire that he trapped the ball, that the call should be reversed and the runner called safe? Unimaginable right? Or a goalie in hockey indicating to the referee that the puck did indeed cross the line after already being ruled no goal. Never!

In fairness, these sports are different in that they have dozens and dozens of subjective calls each game so it’s really a case of taking the breaks when you can get them because sooner or later the calls will go against you. And don’t get me wrong, I am not saying there is no honour in these other sports, but it’s different than golf.

In hockey, honour is not hitting an opponent with an eleventh punch after pummeling him senseless and defenseless with the first ten blows.

In baseball, it’s sitting in front of a congressional hearing, waving your finger and stating: “Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.” (Rafeal Palmeiro, March 2005)

So what is it that leads us to trust that this self regulation in golf actually works? After all there is just as much or more money in golf now than in most other sports and the competition for that money is off the charts.

For those players on the fringes of the PGA tour one shot could lead to a missed cut, leading to finishing out of the top 125, leading to a trip to tour school and possibly spending the next five years sleeping in Motel 8s trying to fight your way back to the big leagues.

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that one penalty shot could conceivably change a career and cost a player millions. Yet we still accept that players will be honest and judicious in regulating their own game? How is that possible in this day and age where other sports are spending so much energy and resources trying to eliminate cheating?

Beyond the clichés and rhetoric I believe a big part of it lies with the C word. While in other sport the motto “if your not cheating you’re not trying” is routinely applied the same cannot be said for golf where cheating has an entirely different connotation.

When Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry is asked if he doctored the baseball, as he’s been accused for decades, there’s usually a quick denial followed by a wink or a wry smile. Although it’s widely acknowledged that this guy was a cheater nobody seems to mind; it’s even seen as part of the charm of the game.

But if you asked Arnold Palmer if he occasionally fluffed it up in the rough when no one was looking he’d probably punch you right in the mouth. Former golf channel host Peter Kessler found out first hand the consequences of associating cheating with one of golf’s greats. 

During a live interview with Palmer, Kessler relentlessly hounded the legend for endorsing a non-conforming driver from Callaway. Palmer was on record as saying that he didn’t see anything wrong with weekend golfers getting more enjoyment out of the game by using non-conforming equipment.

Throughout the interview Kessler was suggesting, in a not so subtle manner, that Palmer was endorsing cheating. This insinuation did not go over well with Palmer, one of the co-founders of the golf channel.  Shortly thereafter Kessler, at the time the Golf Channel’s top on air personality, was unceremoniously relieved of his duties.  Palmer’s message regarding having his name associated in any way with cheating was loud and clear.  As for Kessler, he’s now working Putt-Putt tournaments for channel 9 in Pensacola Florida!

The simple truth is, in golf, the mere accusation of cheating hangs over a golfer's head like a black cloud. The fact that there is often no judge or jury does not seem to change this fact. In spite of the amazing things he’s accomplished for golf around the world it’s hard to think of Gary Player without associating him with Tom Watson’s accusation of cheating in one of the early Skins Games.

Watson not only accused Player of cheating but that he had systematically been doing the same thing for years and that his competitors were fed up. There are other examples.

Before his Hall of Fame career took full flight, Vijay Singh was suspended from an Asian tour for allegedly doctoring his scorecard; an incident that continues to dog Singh. And just this past summer when a media feud erupted between Sandy Lyle and Colin Montgomery over Rider Cup captaincy, Lyle played his trump card, an accusation that Montgomery had cheated in 2005 by not properly recreating his lie after a rain delay.  In the end this accusation left both players wallowing in a negative light.

So whether it’s the old standards, honour and integrity, or simply the fear of being publicly labeled a cheat that makes this system work in professional golf, what makes it work in amateur golf?

Certainly without the presence of rules officials and galleries there are ample opportunities for weekend golfers to “take advantage” of a rules situation. Yet we all continue to play our $5 Nassaus or club competitions without even giving this a second thought. I’ve been playing golf for over 20 years at various levels of competition and can remember only a few occasions where a suspected breach of the rules was even a consideration.

I think most golfers would say the same, except maybe for my mom. She’s been golfing now for about 25 years and has probably had hundreds of on course or post round disputes with her regular playing partners. I don’t know what it is with those girls and their bickering. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that none of them really have any clue about the rules... but I digress.

For this self officiating paradigm to be successful, it relies on a number of things, the foremost of which is the trust that each player will honestly and willingly call infractions on him or herself. Goes without saying right?

But honestly, have you ever committed an infraction and been tempted to overlook the indiscretion because you knew nobody else was aware of what had happened? 

You have a great round going and some silly thing occurs that really has no effect on your shot. Let me ask you a more important question: have you ever given in to this temptation? I have.

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was during my first year as a club golfer at the Gatineau Golf and “Concrete” Club as we used to call it. Up until that point I had played occasionally during the summers but that year was really my first exposure to competitive golf.

During one members’ tournament I had a particularly good round going. On number thirteen, I missed the green and had a rather simple chip shot from the green side rough.

As I addressed my ball it moved about a half a roll. I was on the far side of the green so nobody else could possibly have seen the ball move, I barely noticed it myself standing right over it. I rationalized to myself that this was not worthy of mention…after all I did not do this on purpose and had not really improved my lie, in fact it was probably a tougher shot after the ball had moved and settled a little deeper in the rough.

So I went ahead and played my shot, got the ball up and down and carried on as if nothing had happened. Was this cheating? Without question it was! Even though I was relatively new golfer, I was fully aware of the rule and should have immediately called a one stroke penalty on myself.

In fact, because I did not replace my ball to this original position in the end I actually committed two penalties. First Player, then Singh, then Montie and now Kennedy…a cheat? I’m sorry to say it’s true. On a side note, it’s amazing how easy a shot becomes after cheating. It’s almost like hitting a provisional.

I ended up carding a very good score in the tournament, but as I accepted congratulations for my effort from my fellow members, I’m sure my guilt was written all over my face.

I’m not proud of what I did that day but I’m glad it happened because I did learn a valuable lesson that has stayed with me ever since and I am now extremely diligent in calling infractions on myself, making sure to always err on the side of caution.

I can honestly say that I have never knowingly broken the rules since. I know, I know…and Barry Bonds never knowingly took steroids!  Well, the fact is I can’t change the past, but on the bright side I did walk away that day with a golf umbrella and a sleeve of balls. 

Now come on, who wouldn’t sacrifice their integrity and honor for a sleeve of Kro-Flites?

My cheating episode brings up a second important element in rules enforcement, that there is absolutely no room for rationalization when applying rules.

Do some golf rulings seem silly under certain situations? Of course they do. The infamous Craig Stadler “building a stance” penalty from back in the 80’s is a prime example. Stadler had to play a shot from his knees under a tree so he placed a towel down so he would not get the knees of his slacks stained.

He was later penalized for “building a stance” and disqualified for having signed a wrong scorecard. It may seem ridiculous to some that a player should be penalized for this rather innocent infraction especially when the penalty was applied after the round based on a call from a viewer.

But in order for this whole system to work it is imperative that the rules are followed “to a T”. I liken this to the crackdown on hooking in hockey. I often hear hockey fans complaining when a penalty is called: “he barely touched him! It doesn't affect the play!”  Maybe so, but if you let that hook go then the other team starts giving little hooks of their own, so you can’t call those, then things start to escalate and the next thing you know you’re back to the water skiing and tackling that we saw in hockey pre-lockout. It was zero tolerance that rid hockey of that nonsense and it is zero tolerance that is required to maintain equity in golf, no matter how silly the penalty might seem.

Several years after my indiscretion at the Gatineau I got a good example of how the rules of golf must be applied. I was playing in a city match play event in which I was matched up against a player who was much better than I. After nine holes I was hanging on for dear life, three down I believe and sinking fast.

On the tenth hole, a par five, my opponent was preparing to play his third shot into the green from the front of a fairway bunker.  As he walked in to play his shot his caddy grabbed the rake and quickly smoothed over a foot print at the back edge of the bunker, a good 40 or more feet from where the shot was to be played.

My opponent immediately informed me that he was conceding the hole and explained that his caddy had tested the conditions of the bunker. I had not witnessed the incident and at this point in the match I was very upset with myself and in no mood for this guy’s charity.

I yelled back to my opponent to just play it out, that it was an honest mistake and he had gained no advantage…no big deal I said. Nothing doing! Once again he informed me he was conceding the hole and that was that; a true example of golf honour and sportsmanship.

Am I giving this guy too much credit for his honesty? Maybe after watching me hit those low hooks for 10 holes he said to himself: “I don’t have to cheat to beat this chump!” In the end he had little to worry about as he dusted me on 15, escaped with an easy win and his honour intact.

A third aspect of rules application that must be followed is that players must be prepared to enforce the rules on their playing partners, particularly in stroke play events where everyone is potentially affected by a breech of the rules. This may sound easy but informing an opponent that you’re assessing a penalty can be quite difficult, especially for someone who tends to shy away from confrontation.

I found out how difficult this can be first hand while playing in an interclub match play event at Calabogie years ago.  On the third hole my opponent from Calabogie, a friendly elderly gentleman, hit his approach shot onto a cart path left of the green. Because of where his ball lay on the path his nearest point of relief was on the far side of the cart path, an area filled with large rocks.

The player asked me where he should drop and I informed him that his nearest point of relief was unfortunately right in the rocks which were large enough that his ball might disappear completely. He looked at me and said “I can’t play from there, can’t I just drop it on the grass”.

There was a thin strip of grass between the path and the rocks but there was no way he could take a drop on the grass without standing on the cart path to play the shot. I explained to him that he had to take complete relief from the path to determine his nearest point of relief and that he also had the option of playing the ball where it lies.

I was basically telling him: “play it from the cart path, it’s your best option!” So I walk back to the green and as I turn around to my shock my opponent is playing the shot from the grass strip, clearly standing on the cart path.  As he walked up to the green I reluctantly informed him that I was assessing a penalty.

The gentleman was quite polite about it and just accepted the penalty but another competitor in the group, a player from Madawaska, started laying into me: “What’s your problem?

Why you making such a big did about this, aren't we just out here to have some fun? This isn’t the US Open buddy!”  The reaction rather shocked me and left me feeling about two feet tall. An uneasy feeling remained with me throughout the round.

I really regret the way that ruling was received that day by that third player but in the end I do not regret making the call. I believe it behooves us all to make sure the rules are followed not matter how difficult it may be.

I remember an incident that occurred when I was a member of Emerald Links Golf Club. We had a regular game we called the “fifteen dollar” game. Everyone pitched in $15 and the money was divided among the best net scores on the front and back as well as skins.  It was a friendly game with the prize money shared among several people so you usually walked away with some money or at worst a free drink.

On one particular day there were four or five foursome competing in the $15 game. After the round I was enjoying a beer with three members of the final foursome. The fourth member of their group had won the prize for the low net score on the front nine. They went on to tell me about the ninth hole, when this fourth member had hit a quick hook off the tee into the woods on the par five.

Based on their account the accused walked into the woods about 70 yards further up from where the ball was likely to be and miraculously “found” his ball in a relatively good position where he could advance it up the fairway. The other players, still searching 70 yards back, were flabbergasted when he called out that he had found his ball. 

“Are you sure it couldn’t have been his ball?” I asked, “no chance” they all replied.  Always one to enjoy a good confrontation story I then asked eagerly: “so what did he say when you called him on it?” 

Silence. Not one of the three had bothered to call him on it. Then the excuses started: “I’m 95% sure that that wasn’t his ball, I didn’t realize he was in the running for low net, etc., etc…”  Do I think the other player actually cheated and dropped another ball? Tough to say, but I wouldn’t put him past him.

But to me it’s irrelevant; if you choose not to call a violation on a player then you really forego your right to squawk about it later. An accusation of cheating is something that can never be erased so if you don’t have the certainty to make the call on the course then just let it go. Behind the back accusations after the fact are just not fair.

Listen, I am not naive enough to think that golf is void of cheating whether you’re talking professional or amateur golf. Heck, I’m a confessed cheater myself! But I think that on the whole the system really does work and that golfers do show tremendous honour and integrity. It’s truly what sets golf apart from other sports.

When applied to golf, honour and integrity are indeed more than just tired old clichés. So the next time you’re teeing it up, rest assured that if you take care of your end of the bargain you’ll be able to enjoy a pleasant, equitable and confrontation-free round. Unless of course you’re playing with my mom!

JFK is a self-proclaimed golf addict and a periodic member of The Slammer Tour.

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