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FOCUS ON GOLF: British Open

Honor Role

There's No Place for Cheating in Golf, the Last Bastion of Civility in Pro Sports

July 16, 1998|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTHPORT, England — When Jack Nicklaus was 11, he was playing golf with his father in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, when he hit his ball into a bunker. If you think that made young Nicklaus happy, you don't know Jack.

"The ball had hardly reached the bunker before my club was following it in there too," Nicklaus said.

But if Jack was angry, his father was absolutely steamed.

"He came over to me and said 'Jack, if you ever throw another club, it'll be the last time you play.' And you know, I haven't thrown another club since."

Well, good for you, Jack. Fortunately, the world has been safe from airborne clubs flung from Nicklaus' hands for quite a while now. To be sure, there still is some graphite-shafted, titanium-headed projectile tossing going on out on the golf course, but as a rule, you'd have to admit that golf is a fairly orderly sport.

If you think about it, that's not something you can say about too many professional sports these days. In fact, name another one. Name one other sport in which history and tradition are revered, sportsmanship is honored and observed, the rules are sacrosanct and the players wear pants with such sharp creases you could slice tomatoes with them.

Consider the proposition that golf is the last bastion of civility in pro sports, a lonely oasis of order in an otherwise desert landscape where you see pure, unadulterated sportsmanship about as often as you see Dennis Rodman and Latrell Sprewell in a library.

There used to be plenty of other sports in which actual sportsmanship flourished.

Such as tennis. Unfortunately, sportsmanship in tennis went out about the same time they stopped playing in white flannel pants with their hair slicked back as if they used vegetable oil for gel.

Sailing was up there for a while, until they started cheating with those funny hulls designed to make the boats go faster than a summer vacation.

Baseball? Hardly. Like a baseball in your ear? Football? Sure thing, and see you at the next crackback block party.

You're beginning to see the point. Three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin is clear on the concept.

"If you can get way with it, you bump into the other guy's tires and he winds up in the wall, well, that's part of auto racing," Irwin said. "You gouge a guy's eye with a high stick in hockey, but nobody calls it, that's OK. You hold onto the other guy's jersey in basketball, nobody calls a foul, then that's OK too.

"I don't think that the game of golf was intended to be played that way."

So maybe golf gets to carry the sportsmanship banner by default, but that shouldn't diminish the fact that golf stands out for the way it goes about its business. Golf does that in a manner that sometimes seems strangely out of place in the anything-goes, nothing's-wrong-if-they-don't-call-it, is-the-TV-camera-pointed-at-me? regimen that dominates professional sports these days.

Nicklaus said what sets golf apart is respect.

"It's always been a game of honor," he said. "You respect the golf course, you respect the traditions, you respect the game itself, you respect the players. It's what separates golf from every other sport."

Byron Nelson considers it semi-amazing that golf has maintained his dignity despite the pressures that big-time money can bring. As you might have recognized in pro sports, money changes everything, and not often for the good.

"I'll tell you, I am extremely proud of the way the boys conduct themselves," said Nelson, who won the Masters twice, the PGA Championship twice and the U.S. Open once. "They don't do it perfect. The pressure is so great now. The money they are making now is so great, that makes it difficult."

Nelson said that in 1945, when he won his record 11 consecutive tournaments, he cashed in with one commercial endorsement--$200 from Wheaties. Players now routinely receive $10,000 for one-day corporate outings. Last year's leading money winner on the PGA Tour was Tiger Woods with nearly $2.1 million, but he has deals for off-the-course income of about $100 million.

With so much money at stake, it's only natural that there be some incidents in which a player might deliberately, let's say, enhance his chance at winning and thus taking a trip to the bank. Sometimes there are honest mistakes made. On other occasions, the mere hint of a bending of the rules has been enough to rattle the trophies off the mantel.

Mark Brooks has won the 1996 PGA and six other tournaments in a 15-year pro career and made a good living out of hitting the ball straighter than a lot of people. Going straight is a good rule for the people hitting the ball too, Brooks said.

"As far as cheating, like moving balls, nobody does it," he said. "Somebody would see him. Moving ball markers, replacing the ball on the green, it's not done. You've got your coin on the green and you move it a quarter-inch closer to the hole or something. It's ridiculous. There's no advantage gained, except maybe mentally for the player.

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