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Golf GolfPlus Leaderboards Schedules Stats Players Travel & Leisure Golf GameTrack CourseGuide World Golf Teeing Off: You Make the Call

The great thing about golf is that even the fans help keep the game honest

by Jaime Diaz

Posted: Wed September 16, 1998

SI Golf Plus Now that we've been Bubbacued, trust might seem like an old-fashioned concept. That's why it's worth remembering that there are still places where people do the right thing even when no one is watching. Consider tournament golf.

Linda Tripp could become commissioner of the PGA Tour and the public would still trust pro golfers to play fair. While rules, like records, are made to be broken in other sports—as long as you're not caught by an official, anything goes—golf clings to an old-world honor system.

The most recent example of the game's rectitude occurred at last month's World Series of Golf, during which Lee Janzen's ball, teetering on the lip of the cup, took more than 10 seconds to fall. Janzen didn't tap in, he said, because he thought the ball was still turning slightly as it hung on the edge of the hole, and it's illegal to hit a moving ball. After about 20 seconds, 10 more than the Rules of Golf allow, the ball did drop. Later, a television viewer called in to say that Janzen should have been assessed, or assessed himself, a stroke penalty. Even though no weekend golfer would dare enforce that rule, it was the correct call, and Janzen was DQ'd for signing a scorecard with a lower total than what he had shot.

At first Janzen was peeved by the decision, just as Craig Stadler was irked in 1987 when a viewer busted him for "building a stance" when he knelt on a towel to play a shot and as Paul Azinger was put out in '91 when TV showed him reflexively kicking away a rock in a water hazard, thereby "improving his stance." But they came to accept that nothing could be more just. A rule was broken. End of story. It didn't matter if anyone saw the infraction. That's a standard rarely met in our society, and these instances point up one of the remarkable aspects of the game: Only golf is a truly interactive sport, its fans empowered to the extent that they can influence the outcome of a tournament.

In fact, most recreational golfers, whether they know it or not, don't play by the rules—as Tour veteran Dave Hill once said, "Golf is the hardest game to play well, and the easiest to cheat at"—yet those who play for money or glory hold the rules sacred. There's more than idealism at work. A Tour pro who was caught cheating is forever tainted and his accomplishments diminished. Even a player suspected of cheating faces silent hostility from his peers.

I have another theory why tournament golfers take such pains to follow the rules. Self-esteem is paramount to the psychology of a winning player, and cheating betrays a weakness of character. In the most telling moments of competition, the knowledge of that weakness undermines the self-confidence needed to win. Instinctively and intellectually, a tournament golfer knows a cheater is a loser.

No wonder tournament golfers try so hard to go the other way. In the third round of this year's Western Open, Joe Durant, a journeyman, was near the lead as he stood over a short putt. After taking a last look at the hole, Durant glanced down and thought his ball was in a minutely different position than it had been a second before. Fearing that the ball had moved, he replaced it and penalized himself a stroke. The next day, his resolve pure, he earned his first Tour victory.

This is powerful medicine, the stuff Andrew Carnegie had in mind when he bequeathed $200,000 to Yale to build a golf course, explaining, "Golf is an indispensable adjunct to high civilization." Bing Crosby was also onto something when he noted, "Gentlemen play golf. And if you aren't a gentleman when you start, after the crushing events of the game, you surely become one."

Golf is one of President Clinton's favorite pastimes, and he surely would have benefited from living by the code of the game. He took a big step in that direction last week when he said, "I have no one to blame but myself for my self-inflicted wounds."

Every bona fide golfer knows that to be true.

Issue date: September 21, 1998

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