All is fair in golf

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

Los Angeles Times - - Sports - David Whar­ton

The game holds it­self to a higher stan­dard, re­quir­ing play­ers to know all the rules and pe­nal­ize them­selves. A1

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.”

Stretch­ing the rules has be­come so com­mon that ath­letes make it part of their reper­toire, soc­cer play­ers div­ing to the turf and bas­ket­ball play­ers flop­ping back­ward in hopes of draw­ing fouls.

“We all ac­cept it,” said Jan Box­ill, di­rec­tor of the Parr Cen­ter for Ethics at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina and edi­tor of an es­say col­lec­tion ti­tled “Sports Ethics.” “There are cer­tain kinds of strate­gies that ev­ery­one has agreed to.”

Golf’s stub­born re­fusal to com­pro­mise has, over the years, prompted crit­ics to sug­gest the sport is too strict.

Dur­ing World War II, as Ger­man planes flew raids over London, the nearby Rich­mond Golf Club de­manded a one-stroke penalty for any mem­ber wish­ing to re­take an er­rant shot “af­fected by the si­mul­ta­ne­ous ex­plo­sion of a bomb.” Play­ers were also asked to re­move shrap­nel from the fair­ways to pre­vent dam­age to the mow­ers.

As re­cently as this sum­mer, a spate of cu­ri­ous rules and in­ter­pre­ta­tions led to con­tro­ver­sial penal­ties.

Dustin John­son lost his chance at win­ning the PGA Cham­pi­onship when his ball landed in what ap­peared to be a patch of dirt with spec­ta­tors crowded around. No one re­al­ized they were all stand­ing in a hag­gard sand trap and John­son vi­o­lated a rule that pro­hibits a golfer from let­ting his club touch the sand be­fore swinging.

Though he ar­guably ben­e­fited from test­ing the con­sis­tency of the sur­face, other re­cent vi­o­la­tions had noth­ing to do with ac­tual play.

LPGA vet­eran Juli Inkster was sent home for slip­ping a weighted “dough­nut” — an im­proper train­ing de­vice — over her club to take a few warm-up swings dur­ing a long de­lay. On the men’s tour, of­fi­cials dis­qual­i­fied Jim Furyk for ar­riv­ing min­utes late to a pro­mo­tional event be­fore the tour­na­ment even be­gan.

“I have no idea how the com­mis­sioner let this rule go through,” tour pro Phil Mick­el­son said. “It’s ridicu­lous.”

But when two LPGA golfers in­ad­ver­tently played each other’s balls on the 18th fair­way, the re­ac­tion was markedly dif­fer­ent.

Shi Hyun Ahn and Il Mi Chung did not in­form of­fi­cials un­til af­ter the round had ended and they had signed their score­cards. They were dis­qual­i­fied for not pe­nal­iz­ing them­selves at the time of the er­ror. The sit­u­a­tion wors­ened when an In­ter­net re­port sug­gested they knew of the mix-up on the 18th green and dis­cussed keep­ing quiet.

Though an LPGA in­ves­ti­ga­tion cleared the women of any mis­con­duct, the mere sug­ges­tion of cheat­ing caused a stir in the golf world.

“It got a lit­tle heated,” tour spokesman David Hig­don said. “Play­ers are pretty pas­sion­ate about this stuff.”

The de­mand for hon­esty ex­tends all the way down to ca­sual play. In a tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial, a week­end hacker sur­rep­ti­tiously kicks his ball into bet­ter po­si­tion and Mick­el­son ap­pears from be­hind a tree to in­form him that us­ing the “foot wedge” vi­o­lates Rule 13-1.

Rickie Nash does not want any­one to think that her old­est son is a saint. Zach talks back to his par­ents on oc­ca­sion and fights with his two younger broth­ers, “just like any teenager does,” she said.

His love of golf be­gan about three years ago when his Un­cle Sam took him out.

Stand­ing just over 5 feet tall with a slight build, Zach does not hit the ball es­pe­cially hard but has a re­li­able game off the tee and an ac­cu­rate put­ter. In a rel­a­tively short time, his hand­i­cap has dipped to five.

“He is so en­grossed in the game that he’ll go home and watch the Golf Chan­nel all night,” golf pro Wood said. “He is try­ing to ab­sorb all this in­for­ma­tion.”

Just as im­por­tant, it seems, the young player has em­braced the tenets of his sport, al­low­ing older mem­bers to play through, show­ing un­fail­ing cour­tesy around the club­house.

“He rec­og­nizes that this is not just about play­ing,” Wood said. “It’s about the at­ti­tude you por­tray.”

On that Au­gust af­ter­noon when Zach re­al­ized he had an ex­tra club in his bag, he thought about his ear­li­est days in golf.

“My un­cle put it in my head that rules make the game what it is,” he re­called. “They’re so im­por­tant.”

But he also thought about the way he had per­formed, shoot­ing a 77 to win his age group by three strokes, and the ex­cite­ment of hav­ing his grand­par­ents there. His er­ror had no ef­fect on the fi­nal score.

“I mean, I never used that club,” he said.

The Nash fam­ily was sit­ting on the front porch when Zach came home, in no way re­sem­bling the proud, happy kid they had last seen ac­cept­ing a first­place medal. He had de­cided to make the call.

Apart of him won­dered whether of­fi­cials might choose to over­look such a mi­nor in­dis­cre­tion. But this was golf, and rules are rules. Zack packed up his medal and dropped it in the mail.

“I just knew what I had to do,” he said.

It will make him a bet­ter player, he hopes. As the days have passed, re­porters have called to ask ques­tions, com­par­ing him to Brian Davis.

“I never knew I could get so much recog­ni­tion for just do­ing what’s right,” Zach said.

Then came an­other tour­na­ment, a chance to get back on the course and for­get. Well, al­most.

Be­fore tee­ing off, Zach counted his clubs — four times.

Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel

’FESS UP: Zach Nash, 14, gave back medal over mis­take in­volv­ing clubs.


Kristyna Wentz-Graff

Zach Nash, 14, was beam­ing af­ter he won a tour­na­ment. He got a medal. Then he no­ticed a 15th club in his golf bag.

Jae C. Hong

RULES ARE RULES: Dustin John­son lost his chance at the PGA Cham­pi­onship in Au­gust when he was pe­nal­ized two strokes for let­ting his club touch the sand in a bunker be­fore swinging. He didn’t re­al­ize that the patch of dirt was a bunker.

HIGH STAN­DARDS: Bobby Jones wins the Bri­tish Open in 1930. When he was lauded five years ear­lier for pe­nal­iz­ing him­self at the U.S. Open, he said, “You might as well praise a man for not rob­bing a bank.”

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