Leaf en­counter

The ter­ri­ble luck that cost Matthew South­gate his Amer­i­can dream

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By James Cor­ri­gan GOLF COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Matthew South­gate has main­tained his si­lence th­ese past few weeks, de­spite garnering wide­spread sym­pa­thy in the game for suf­fer­ing what has been in var­i­ous places de­scribed as “one of the worst breaks golf has seen” and “a clas­sic ex­am­ple of golf ’s silly rules”.

Yet the rea­son why the English­man held his tongue was not be­cause he was fu­ri­ous with the leaf and the rul­ing that ul­ti­mately cost him a PGA Tour card – but be­cause he was “em­bar­rassed”.

On Fri­day, South­gate fi­nally agreed to talk about the bizarre in­ci­dent that oc­curred in Ohio. It would have been easy for South­gate to howl at the heav­ens, or even at the gov­ern­ing bod­ies, but the 29-year-old sees only one cul­prit – him­self. And he is de­ter­mined to do some­thing about it.

Stand­ing over a five-footer on the 15th green in the fi­nal round of the DAP Cham­pi­onship in Ohio, South­gate seemed cer­tain to wrap up his play­ing priv­i­leges on the US Tour, oth­er­wise known as golf ’s fantasyland. Sixth place at the Open in July had earned the Es­sex man the right to play in the Web.com Tour fi­nals, from where 25 play­ers would win golf ’s equiv­a­lent of the Willy Wonka golden ticket.

What hap­pened next flum­moxed even the most hard­ened of ob­servers. South­gate hit his putt, but as it is was mak­ing its ap­par­ently in­ex­orable progress to­wards the hole, a leaf blew into it and caused it to veer off line.

“I’ve never seen any­thing like it and I’ve yet to talk to any­one else who has,” South­gate said. “The speed with which it hit the ball … it re­ally smacked it. The ball moved a long way. I couldn’t be­lieve it.”

Nei­ther could the PGA Tour so­cial me­dia staff, who quickly posted the clip, com­plete with South­gate’s stunned re­ac­tion, on the var­i­ous out­lets above the words: “Golf is hard … es­pe­cially when you’re play­ing for a PGA Tour card.” Yet, at that stage, only a few re­alised ex­actly how hard.

“About 30 min­utes af­ter I’d fin­ished, I got a mes­sage telling me that a rule of­fi­cial had seen that video on Twit­ter and that be­cause I’d tapped in and not re­placed it, I was be­ing pe­nalised two shots and then a fur­ther two shots for sign­ing for an in­cor­rect score,” South­gate said. “They showed me the rule book and as soon as I saw it, I knew. It’s there in black and white. And I was just re­ally, re­ally em­bar­rassed.

“It was poor from me to not know the rules of a game I’ve played since I was two. I take full re­spon­si­bil­ity. Peo­ple say it’s bad luck, but it’s not bad luck be­cause I should have re­played the shot and could have made four. But I didn’t and it be­came nine, and that be­came me miss­ing my card. I’ve only got my­self to blame. I’m not an­noyed with any­one else.”

The best wishes of his peers have not as­sisted much ei­ther; and nei­ther has their col­lec­tive ig­no­rance. I asked 10 dif­fer­ent pros at the Dun­hill Links if they were aware of that par­tic­u­lar rule and all ad­mit­ted they were not.

“Yeah, loads have told me that, but it’s a bit of a shock to think pro golfers know ev­ery­thing and they ac­tu­ally don’t,” South­gate said. “If you’re a pro and you’re play­ing for mil­lions week in, week out, you should know all the rules in­side out. If I’d known the rul­ing, I’d have been the talk of the town for the right rea­son. I’d have re­placed it, hit it in for a four and ev­ery­body would have said, ‘What a great pro, what great knowl­edge of the rules.’ I would have had credit, in­stead of sym­pa­thy.

“And peo­ple also say I was un­lucky be­cause I had the cam­eras on me at the time. But if they weren’t, I’d have a PGA Tour card and I would have it by break­ing the rules. And imag­ine 10 years down the line when a leaf hits some­one else’s ball and I’d see it and think, ‘That’s what hap­pened to me and I shouldn’t be here.’ How bad would that feel?” In all his self-flag­el­la­tion, South­gate con­cedes it is a pos­i­tive that the rule­mak­ers are in the process of sim­pli­fy­ing the weighty tome.

“When you’re a kid grow­ing up play­ing golf, you learn the rules through the ex­pe­ri­ences of what hap­pens to you on the course,” he said. “So you know how to take a drop from a haz­ard and all those things. But so many dif­fer- ent things can hap­pen out there that it makes it al­most im­pos­si­ble to learn the rule book com­pletely just from ex­pe­ri­ence. You need to sit there and learn like you would an exam, and that will put peo­ple off. So it’s good what the R&A and USGA are try­ing to do.”

For South­gate, it is back to the Euro­pean Tour and, at 26th in the or­der of merit, he still has plenty to play for in the Race to Dubai run-in. He is hardly lack­ing per­spec­tive, hav­ing re­cov­ered from tes­tic­u­lar cancer two years ago, but he would be ly­ing if he stated this had not af­fected him. And if one thing is cer­tain, it is that here is an hon­est char­ac­ter.

“It’s knocked me for six as it was the chance to play the big­gest tour­na­ments in the world against the best play­ers,” he said. “Th­ese cir­cum­stances would be heart-wrench­ing for any­one. It’s not like I made a 10 tak­ing on a crazy shot. I didn’t know the rules and I should. So I will be go­ing back to the rule book and hav­ing a good study. If I didn’t know that one, there are prob­a­bly about five or six more in there that I also don’t know. It won’t hap­pen to me again.”

Hard-luck story: Matthew South­gate watches in dis­be­lief as a leaf hits his ball to knock it wide of the hole. His tap-in would ul­ti­mately cost him four strokes and a US Tour card

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