McCumber joined the Tour in the summer of 1978, at the age of 26, and his route there was wholly his own. As a teenager he was one of the best junior players in the country, but he turned down all the college scholarships and moved instead to Brooklyn, where, as a Jehovah's Witness, he worked as a missionary. In his late teens and early 20's, from 1969 through 1973, McCumber played virtually no golf. But after getting married in 1974, he concluded that golf would be the best way to support his family. He started playing in the rough-and-tumble Florida mini-tours in the mid-1970s, then finally qualified for the Tour on his sixth visit to the Q school.
In July 1978 McCumber arrived at the Greater Milwaukee Open, the second event of his PGA Tour career. He was skilled but raw, and practically nobody knew him. Carrying his golf bag that week was a Tour caddie named Bill Hubbard. On the 10th hole of the second round, McCumber drove his ball under a small tree, and what happened next caused a disagreement that clings to McCumber still. Hubbard said McCumber swung and missed and failed to count the stroke. McCumber said he was taking a practice swing. After the round McCumber and Hubbard went to see Jack Tuthill, then the Tour's director of tournament golf, to settle the dispute. Tuthill asked McCumber if his intention was to hit the ball during the swing in question. McCumber said no. Hubbard disagreed. Hubbard said he could not work for McCumber and quit.
Success came quickly for McCumber. He won the 12th tournament in which he played, in 1979 at Doral, in Miami. He came to the final event of the '79 season, the Pensacola Open, needing to make a check to secure 60th place on the money list. Back then only the top 60 players retained their playing privileges for the following year. Bill Kratzert says he saw McCumber move his ball noticeably in front of his marker on a two-foot putt on the 12th green in the second round. McCumber made the putt and the cut—and finished 60th on the money list, $48 ahead of No. 61, Miller Barber.
Kratzert went to the late Dan Sikes, who, like McCumber, was also from Jacksonville. "I said, 'Dan, somebody's got to show him how to mark his ball because it's only going to get worse,' " Kratzert remembers. Kratzert also told McCumber that he was not marking his ball properly. McCumber recalls Kratzert advising him on the proper way to mark a ball and says the only advice he received from Sikes was "if somebody's standing on top of you when you mark your ball, you go right back and stare at him when he's marking."
In 1980, again at Pensacola, McCumber was paired with Hubert Green for the first two rounds. After the first round, Green says, he reported to an official that McCumber had repeatedly failed to properly mark his ball. McCumber does not remember Green calling for an official but does remember Green giving him "fatherly advice" about how to mark his ball. Told of McCumber's recollection of the day, Green says, "Would you call in a police officer to give some fatherly advice?" Green was not surprised when the Tour official took no action. "He said what they all say: 'It's your word against his.' "
In 1983 at the Anheuser-Busch Classic, on the 15th green of the third round, McCumber chipped a ball that finished on the green in a small depression, according to his playing partner, Mark Lye. But by the time McCumber was through marking his ball and preparing to putt, Lye says, the ball was no longer in the depression. Lye called in a rules official, and McCumber agreed to move the ball back into the depression. "After the round, Mark's wife came up to me and said, 'How dare you even think that my husband would cheat,' " Lye says. "And I said to her, 'Paddy, I like Mark, but I don't think he was going to cheat, he was going to cheat.' "
McCumber says he did not intentionally move the ball out of the depression. "The most peculiar thing about it," McCumber says, "is that later Mark said to me, 'I knew you were going to do that.' And I said, 'For heaven's sake, if you knew I was going to do it, why didn't you say something before I did it?' "
Reviewing these three ball-marking disputes from the early part of his career, McCumber says, "Things get more microscopic when you're on Tour. I think it would be fair to say that over the course of a career you learn to be more precise in every aspect of the game, including your understanding of the rules."
But by 1983 McCumber's reputation among certain players and golf observers was sealed: He was a player you had to watch. In 1985 at Doral, McCumber was leading by two strokes over Tom Kite by the time he reached the 18th tee on Sunday. McCumber hit his drive way to the right, and CBS's Ken Venturi, basing his comments on a report from an on-course cameraman, stated that the ball had become lodged in a palm tree. During the chaotic search for the ball, McCumber was urged to climb the tree to search for the ball. He refused, saying the ball was hit far right of the tree.
A ball bearing McCumber's mark was found by a marshal 40 yards right of the tree, sitting down in heavy rough, and McCumber went on to win. Still, throughout golf, there are people who believe that an outrageous act of cheating occurred on that hole. There is, though, no evidence. Later, somebody went up in the palm tree and recovered several balls, none of them McCumber's. Says McCumber of the incident, "CBS wouldn't give me the benefit of the doubt." Without a direct word being said, McCumber's reputation had reached the airwaves and the public.