Golf is a game of failure. Only one player prevails every tournament. The rest, in some sense, fail. So the game's history is chock-full of mistakes, poor shots, bad choices and embarrassing moments.
Sam Snead never won a U.S. Open but he lost one when he made an 8 on the final hole. Arnold Palmer lost a Masters he thought he had won -- a friend called him over to the ropes to congratulate him as he walked up the 18th fairway -- when he skulled one out of the greenside bunker and made a double bogey on the 72nd hole. Ed Sneed lost a lead on the back nine at Augusta, memorably looking anguished as he left putts hanging on the lip on the last two holes before losing in a playoff. Scott Hoch stepped away from a short putt to win the Masters in a playoff, then missed it, was beaten on the next hole and had the incredible bad fortune to have his name rhyme with "choke."
Ian Baker-Finch once took off his pants and played a shot out of a water hazard in his boxer shorts at Colonial, which only seemed to enhance his appeal to female fans. Later, trying to rediscover his golf swing, he shot 92 in the British Open at the Old Course after hitting his opening tee shot out of bounds left -- across the first fairway and the adjoining 18th fairway and into the street.
Television viewers called in to report a rules violation by Paul Azinger, when he kicked a rock out of his way as he took his stance to play a shot out of a hazard at Doral, the beginning of a trend that nearly everyone despises. A young Bobby Jones threw clubs and cursed until he felt sufficiently embarrassed to grow up. He eventually embodied the ultimate golf statesman.
The ultimate golf embarrassment may be the invention of the metal wood, which no ruling body thought to outlaw at the beginning because it seemed to pose no real threat. Now we're stuck in an age of oversized titanium drivers, 330-yard shots as routine and golf courses that are too short and not challenging enough for the game's finest players. The USGA could have prevented all that but, embarrassingly, was asleep at the wheel. Then again, so were we all.
Here are golf's most embarrassing and unflattering moments, each one an incident that took on a life of its own:
1. The rise and fall of France.
Frenchman Jean Van de Velde was a little-known European tour player before the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie. When he played the best golf of his career and charmed writers with his sense of humor, he became golf's greatest Cinderella story. It turned into a horror story on the 72nd hole.
Van de Velde had a three-stroke lead and needed only a double bogey or better to win the Open. Instead of laying up off the tee, he hit driver into the right rough. He got lucky and had a good lie and had 185 yards to clear the water in front of the green. He pushed a 2-iron shot to the right, where it hit a grandstand and bounced backwards into a terrible lie. He tried to hit the next one onto the green but dunked it into the water, setting up a photo op for the ages -- he rolled up his trousers, took off his shoes and waded in the Barry Birn and actually considered trying to play the submerged ball.
Eventually, he got up and down from the greenside bunker for a triple bogey. That earned him a playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie. Lawrie, who began the final round 10 shots behind Van de Velde, emerged the winner. It was the greatest meltdown by a tournament leader in modern history and the most embarrassing, sad and mesmerizing because it came in the age of television, which captured every stunning moment.
2. On second thought, cry for me, Argentina.
The worst wood in Roberto de Vicenzo's bag turned out to be his pencil. The easy-going Argentine lost his chance to win the 1968 Masters because he signed an incorrect scorecard. Playing partner Tommy Aaron wrote down a 4 for the 17th hole when de Vicenzo actually scored 3. Roberto didn't notice the mistake and when he signed his scorecard, he thus signed for a score one stroke higher than he actually shot. His real score would've earned him a playoff with Bob Goalby but the extra stroke gave the green jacket to Goalby.
Some have argued in the years since that Goalby could've made a sportsmanlike statement for the ages by refusing to accept the green jacket without playing de Vicenzo in a playoff, but neither he nor the Masters rules chairman has the power to change the rules of golf, which are clear. The scorecard is sacred. Once signed, it's etched in granite. It was de Vicenzo's mistake. It was also his legacy, even though he had won the 1967 British Open. "What a stupid I am," he said sorrowfully later.
Phil Mickelson said the same thing nearly four decades later when he lost the U.S. Open at Winged Foot with a double bogey on the final hole: "I'm such an idiot." Same thing but if De Vicenzo's error happened today with the massive television coverage, it would be portrayed as a hundred times worse.
3. A question of black and white.
It was shortly before the 1990 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek in Birmingham, Ala., when the nation's media, en masse, noticed golf's dirty little secret -- America's private clubs aren't very integrated.
This controversy started with Shoal Creek leader Hall Thompson's infamous reply to a writer's question about the club not having minority members: "That's just not done in Birmingham," he said. Shock waves resounded. Television networks ABC and ESPN lost $2 million of commercials from nervous sponsors. Black organizations threatened pickets.
Shoal Creek reached agreement with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference nine days before the tournament, giving an honorary membership to a minority and defusing the situation. The PGA Tour and the USGA reacted by revising their guidelines so that clubs with discriminatory membership policies would not be allowed to host their events. Eleven clubs dropped tournaments.
Among the notable fallout, Butler National, which doesn't allow women, lost the Western Open; and Cypress Point, which had no Africa-American members, was bumped out of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. (Curiously, or maybe not, the PGA Tour doesn't enforce its policy at the Masters, which has no women members.)
Augusta National subsequently admitted its first minority member. However, the name of Shoal Creek quickly came to stand for Old South-discrimination in golf for the next decade. In a sport whose long history was full of exclusion, the Shoal Creek affair finally dragged the game, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century.
4. Shoot-out at the Masters.
Martha versus Hootie. No golf topic other than Tigermania was ever hotter than Martha Burk's crusade against Hootie Johnson and Augusta National Golf Club's men-only membership policy. Burk earned massive media coverage in the months leading up to the 2003 Masters, where she planned a protest. She was mentioned in more than 4,400 newspaper and magazine stories in the seven months leading up to the tournament and appeared on number national television shows espousing her cause.
The entire overhyped episode was foolishly caused by Johnson's public response to a private letter from Burk in which he declared that the club would not change its policies "at the point of a bayonet." The fight was on and the nation's leading liberal media outlets piled on.
The super-hype led to a super-dud of a protest. Burk wasn't allowed to protest outside the club's gates and instead had to settle for a vacant lot some blocks away. Her busloads of supporters turned out to be some 40 persons, far fewer than hundreds of media representatives who showed up to cover it. In what seemed like a slam-dunk, media-led campaign against discrimination, discrimination won in a landslide.
The non-rally was a joke, forcing newspapers to drop coverage of the topic. The New York Times' ombudsman called it a "humiliation for the newspaper." Burk and her cause dropped out sight. She eventually stepped down as chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organization.
Johnson, who felt vindicated, won this battle by a knockout and recently resigned as Masters chairman with his legacy restored as a take-no-prisoners leader on a par with Masters founder Clifford Roberts. And even though Augusta National still doesn't have a female member, it's no longer a topic of discussion by the media.