Still believe that golf is the pursuit of honest individuals? Huggy questions your sanity.
Golf, you may have heard once or twice over the years, is a recreation founded on integrity. Played only by those possessed of the highest moral standards, ethics and honesty walk hand-in-hand down life’s fairways. In the greatest sport of all, “upright” doesn’t only refer to Jack Nicklaus’ backswing. Yeah, right. Even if such a utopian state ever existed, it doesn’t any more. At least at the elite level, golf’s reputation for decency and rectitude has been sorely damaged by some of the antics we have witnessed so far this year. A once noble pastime now seems to be populated by a growing number of leading professionals whose behaviour tends to veer south of admirable. Where once there was modesty, there now exists an unhealthy level of entitlement.
Certainly, attitudes towards the once sacrosanct rule book are in steep decline. Over the last few months we have been subjected to a series of unsavoury incidents that only betray a disappointing contempt for the very fabric of a game once universally admired for its immutable honour code.
First we had JB Holmes caring not a jot for any pace of play regulations while taking an age to hit his almost irrelevant approach to the 72nd green at Torrey Pines during the Farmers insurance Open. On an arrogance scale of one-to-ten, this was an eleven.
Then we had former US PGA champion Jimmy Walker owning up to what is known as “backstopping.”. Perhaps Walker’s only redeeming quality in this murky area was his “honesty” in revealing that he only “backstopped” for his pals. Drawn alongside a fellow pro for whom he feels nothing but animosity, he instead plays by the rules, “protects” the rest of the field and marks his ball before his playing partner hits. Truly, an extraordinary admission.
Next up was Phil Mickelson and his now infamous dash across the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills during the third round of the US Open. “Lefty” was far from “righty” when he stopped his still-moving ball from running away down a steep slope by knocking it back towards the hole. It was hugely disappointing from such a distinguished figure, one that ran contrary to everything golf supposedly stands for.
Which brings us to Sung-Soon Kang, exhibit-A in this ever-lengthening litany of outrage. Playing in the PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans National, the Korean-born professional pulled his approach into a hazard left of the 10th green. Kang believed his ball crossed the hazard, giving him a drop on the side of the hazard closer to the hole. Unfortunately, playing partner Joel Dahmen disputed that account, asserting Kang’s ball failed to cross.
Despite Kang claiming to be only “95 percent certain” and hearing conflicting testimony from eye-witnesses standing nearby, the PGA Tour rules officials sided with the “defendant.” Which didn’t go down too well with Dahmen. Not at all. His reaction was unusually principled in a PGA Tour world where intelligence-insulting image preservation tends to supersede any pretence of honesty.
“Kang cheated,” said Dahmen. “He took a bad drop from a hazard. I argued until I was blue. I lost.” So, by the sound of things, has golf. All of the above speaks to a deterioration in standards that is truly worrying. Fuelled, one suspects, by an everincreasing and financially-induced detachment from reality, many of today’s leading players seem to be losing the plot. More and more, their actions are golf’s equivalent of rolling around in the feigned agony we see so often in football. Think Neymar at the World Cup. As role models for the children who are the future of the game, Messrs Holmes, Walker, Mickelson and Kang have failed spectacularly.
All in all, things just ain’t what they used to be, folks. I mean, can you imagine the likes of Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer or Nicklaus indulging in any of this nonsense?
No, neither can I.
John Huggan follows the PGA and European Tours. He is the author of seven books and has written for Golf World since 1992.