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In golf, brutal honesty is par for the course

In what other sport do players call rules violations on themselves -- even when nobody else sees them?

September 27, 2010|David Wharton

No one else had to know about the extra club in Zach Nash's golf bag.

The five-wood belonged to a friend, and Zach forgot it was there as he played his way to victory in a junior tournament near his Wisconsin home this summer.

The 14-year-old accepted his medal, celebrated with grandparents who had come from Iowa to watch, and stopped by his country club to share the news. Then his golf pro noticed something amiss.

"Count your clubs," he told the teenager.

Fifteen -- one more than allowed. Zach's eyes filled with tears.

"It registered right away," he said. "I knew it was wrong."

If Zach had just won a basketball championship or a big football game and someone discovered a violation after the fact -- a technicality, really -- it would not have mattered. Bending the rules has become acceptable, if not encouraged, in much of sports.

Look at Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees star who recently faked being hit by a pitch, wincing and grabbing his arm in mock pain, to gain first base. He later acknowledged his deceit, but no one suggested that he be punished for it.

Golf is different. In a win-at-all-costs world, the game holds itself to a higher standard, demanding that competitors know every rule and call penalties on themselves.

"Even the slightest imputation of cheating, maybe you can get away with that in other sports, but not in golf," said Steve Schlossman, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University who chronicles the game. "That will be used against you."

For Zach, informing tournament officials about the extra club would mean returning his medal. His golf pro told him to go home, think it over.

"It was between Zach and me," Chris Wood said. "It was up to him."

As a philosophy professor and former golf coach at Hamilton College in upstate New York, Robert Simon has some ideas about the nature of the game he loves.

"You could argue that it is a very useful counterforce to the 'if you can get away with it' model that dominates other sports and other parts of society," he said.

This isn't a game where referees watch closely and assume responsibility for the rules. In golf tournaments, dozens of competitors are spread across acres of land, so officials cannot hope to see each shot.

Players also feel the weight of history. Golf dates to at least the 15th century with Scottish shepherds knocking stones about the countryside, but it became popular as a pastime for the wealthy who seemed to have stringent codes for every occasion, even when it came to shooting at each other in duels.

"This goes back to the British class structure," Simon said. "It was a sport for gentlemen, not laborers, and gentlemen did not care about winning. They cared about doing the right thing."

Honesty became a badge of honor -- rectitude nearly as important as sinking a 20-foot putt. When one of the game's early stars, Bobby Jones, was praised for calling a penalty on himself at the 1925 U.S. Open, he replied, "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank."

This ethic has survived into the modern era, as evidenced by the final hole of the Verizon Heritage tournament in South Carolina in April.

Brian Davis stood on a stretch of sand beside the 18th green knowing that he needed a delicate chip for the first PGA Tour victory of his career. But immediately after hitting the shot, he beckoned to a nearby official to say that his club might have ticked a loose reed on the backswing, which constitutes a violation when standing in a hazard.

The infringement was so slight, no one else would have noticed.

"I didn't feel it," he said. "It was one of those things; I thought I saw movement out of the corner of my eye."

A slow-motion television replay confirmed his suspicion. The penalty cost him a chance at the trophy and a $1-million check.

Davis told the official, "I could not have lived with myself if I had not called it."

There is a sports adage: If you're not cheating, you're not trying. Athletes and coaches call it "gamesmanship."

So, if Zach wanted an excuse to keep his mouth shut, he did not have to look far.

The Jeter incident drew scattered criticism from media and fans, but not much from within baseball. Even the other team's manager, ejected for arguing the call, later told reporters: "I thought Derek did a great job and I applaud it because I wish our guys would do the same thing."

Former USC tailback Reggie Bush elicited similar praise for a questionable play that decided the 2005 game at Notre Dame. The Trojans stood one yard short of a winning touchdown with the clock ticking down when Matt Leinart tried a quarterback sneak. The Irish defenders stood him up at the line of scrimmage, but Bush raced from behind and gave Leinart a helpful shove into the end zone.

The so-called Bush Push -- an apparent violation that drew no penalty -- ranks among the rivalry's historic moments.

"You could say Reggie pushed him, which he did," said Charlie Weis, the Notre Dame coach then. "But that's heads-up by Reggie."

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