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Jim Murray

The Only Game With a Conscience

January 10, 1986|JIM MURRAY

CARLSBAD — In baseball, the commissioner of the game was settling down to the melancholy task of interrogating the dozen or so stars of his sport enmeshed in a drug scandal.

In football, the flashy quarterback at the University of Tennessee and his ex-fullback were arrested for selling cocaine.

In basketball, the top player for the Phoenix Suns checked into a California CareUnit for chemical dependency.

In golf, a player who was leading a half-million-dollar tournament by two shots called a two-stroke penalty on himself for playing a ball no one else in the world knew was the wrong one.

In baseball, a two-inning pitcher signed a $3-million contract with bonuses for playing for the next three years.

In football, a dissatisfied All-Pro end on the Chicago Bears publicly threatened not to play in the Super Bowl unless salary adjustments and hikes were immediately made, or promised.

In basketball, a committee met to confront the troublesome problem of salary caps while leaving in place all existing $2-million-a-year salaries or $25-million lifetime guarantees.

In golf, the greatest players in the game teed it up down here at the MONY Tournament of Champions--and paid to do it out of their own pockets.

There is no front office for them to negotiate with, no union. There are no salaries for them to negotiate, no bonuses to discuss, no multiyear contracts. Nobody gets paid for not playing, nobody gets paid for injury incurred in action. Hospitalization is on you.

The golfers give one-quarter to one-third of all money they raise to charity.

In baseball, football and basketball, first-class travel or its equivalent is paid by the club. In golf, how you get to a tournament is up to you. All they guarantee is that the golf course will be there when you arrive.

In other sports, the club pays your hotel bill, meal money and taxi fares. The money you make is largely net. In golf, you pay your own board and room. Also, your caddy. And coaches, if any.

Golfers are the last of the rugged individualists. They make even the Republican Party look wimpy.

The commissioner of the PGA Tour looked on this happy state of affairs in a press conference at Rancho La Costa, site of the tournament here this week, and acknowledged that few of his contemporaries had it so good.

To the other envious commissioners, it must look as if Deane Beman is running the Good Ship Lollipop, ruling a land somewhere over the sports rainbow where bluebirdies fly.

Commissioner Beman is well aware of his good luck. "We have an unusually disciplined group of athletes," he said, picking his words as carefully as he would a 1-iron. "They are self-reliant, self-motivated.

"They rely on themselves. There are no substitutes in our game, no relief pitchers, no pinch-hitters, no pinch-runners."

No one blocks for you, bunts you over. There are no saves in golf unless you make them yourself.

But what's even better about golf is, its code of honor is right out of King Arthur and the Round Table. Other sports seem to be right out of Quantrill's Raiders or the James Gang.

In what other sport does a man's conscience come into play? In baseball, does a fielder come up, tap the umpire on the shoulder and say, "Uh, excuse me, old man. I really trapped that last ball. The man should be awarded a triple and three runs batted in instead of the third out."?

Does a football player approach the referee after a touchdown and say, "Sir, that touchdown shouldn't count. I was holding on that play. In fact, on the last three plays."?

Does a basketball player refuse a free throw at the foul line because he was really traveling on the play?

They do it all the time in golf. Hale Irwin threw away a British Open once because he made a swipe at a putt everyone else assumed was a practice stroke.

And in the opening round of the tournament here this week, the winner of this year's British Open, Sandy Lyle, was three under par and in the lead after the front nine when he drove his 10th tee shot slightly into the rough.

Ahead of him, a forecaddy planted a flag where he presumably had seen the ball fall. Lyle stepped up to it, swung, and put it on the green in two.

When he got there to clean the ball, he noticed this cut in it. It was not his ball.

Now, the only person who knew this for sure was Sandy Lyle. It had no telltale mark that each pro puts on his ball to separate it from the other golf balls on the tour. It was even the same make as his real ball.

Sandy Lyle didn't hesitate. He returned to the rough, found the right ball, and hit it up on the green. Only now, instead of lying two, he was lying five, thanks to the penalty for hitting the wrong ball.

Not surprisingly, he three-putted. From having a putt for a birdie, he had a score of eight.

He had squandered five shots, his lead and, doubtless, all chance at the $90,000 first money.

But, what was intact was the 15th club in his bag, his conscience.

The Queen would be proud. It was, "Carry on, Sandy!"

England expects every man to do his duty, and Alexander Lyle, future Order of the British Empire, and the first Scot to win the British Open since 1931 and only the second Briton of any kind to win it in 16 years, knew his when he saw it.

He appeared startled when a newsman wondered if he hadn't given even some fleeting thought to ignoring the whole nasty business, holing out the imposter.

It was like asking him to throw a brick through a Westminster Abbey window.

"You don't do that!" he protested. "Anybody who would do that would be barred from golf for life! And well they should."

Sandy Lyle won't win this tournament. Nor much sympathy. Not a golfer in the field saw anything extraordinary in what he had done. What goes on in baseball outfields or football lines of scrimmage is what is remarkable.

Deane Beman is running a cathedral by comparison. They should play the game with stained glass windows, and to organ music.

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