On a warm Monday night in late August, an oddly cheerful Mark McCumber flew into Akron on a private plane. McCumber, nearly 44 years old, was in his 18th year on the Tour, and his golf game was about as good as it had ever been. His side business, designing golf courses, was thriving, and his family was too. He was about to play in one of his favorite tournaments, the NEC World Series of Golf, on a track he liked, the South Course of the Firestone Country Club. His life was, to use one of McCumber's favorite words, blessed.
Tuesday was uneventful, Wednesday's pro-am was pleasant, and Thursday, the first round of the tournament, started nicely. McCumber was paired with Greg Norman, and he was nervous about that because the two Floridians—McCumber has spent most of his life in Jacksonville and Norman, the transplanted Australian, lives in Hobe Sound—had not played together since McCumber spoke critically and publicly about Norman's proposal for an international, stars-only golf tour.
But McCumber plays his best when he's nervous—he's a fidgety man who talks quickly and endlessly when he's not whistling—and through the first six holes of the round he was one under par and playing solidly. Meanwhile, Norman, modern golf's dominant figure and arguably its best player, was level par.
Then came the 7th hole, a par-3 of 220 yards. McCumber took three putts for a bogey, and his life has not been the same since. For it was on that green, according to Norman, that McCumber cheated by plucking a tiny clump of grass from the green and smoothing the turf with his thumb. McCumber refutes the charge. He says Norman is mistaken about what he thinks he saw. But since Thursday, Aug. 24, McCumber's nights have been interrupted by bouts of sleeplessness, while Norman has had no such problems. In a world of rampant lawlessness, the fuss over a few blades of grass may seem quaint, but golf is a universe unto itself. The professional golfer's society is one of laws, and the touring pro would rather be convicted of tax evasion than charged with cheating.
Norman says that while McCumber prepared to putt an eight-footer for par, he bent down, brought his right hand to a spot three feet in front of his ball and picked up with his thumb and index finger grass loosened by another player's cleat but still attached to the green. Norman says McCumber then fixed the wounded spot with his thumb and tossed away the grass, creating a smooth putting surface. In Norman's telling McCumber violated the rule of golf that prohibits a player from touching the line of his putt, except when fixing a ball mark or removing a loose impediment, such as a twig or a bug—which is what McCumber says he was doing. He says that he squatted like a catcher, picked up a small black insect with a hard shell with his forefinger and thumb, dropped the insect and picked it up again and tossed it aside, all within the rules of golf.
Norman, livid, summoned a PGA Tour rules official, and Mike Shea arrived as the players were walking up the 9th fairway. Shea, a highly regarded veteran official, heard Norman's charges and McCumber's defense, and decided, as the rules of golf dictate, that in the absence of other evidence the benefit of the doubt must go to the accused. In the scorer's tent after the round—McCumber shot 68 and Norman 73—Norman's fury persisted. By way of protest Norman refused to sign McCumber's scorecard, so Shea signed it for McCumber instead, as the rules allow. Norman said loudly, "I'm out of here." Over the next two hours, Shea, among others, prevailed on Norman to finish the tournament. In the end he did and won.
Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner and a skillful politician, has found a way to believe both men. "I think Greg sincerely believes he saw a violation, but I also believe Mark McCumber did not fix a spike mark," he says. Norman dismisses such evenhandedness. He says he is "110 percent sure" that McCumber cheated, then lied about it. "I'm five paces away," Norman says, speaking of the incident in the present tense weeks later, "and I'm watching." As Norman, and others, frame the issue, either McCumber cheated or Norman tarnished a man's reputation with a false charge.
When McCumber speaks about his accuser and the accusation, it is not with anger. "This is his deal, not mine," McCumber says, avoiding using Norman's name. "I don't want to get into a fight with him. I have a feeling of unsettledness at a time of the year when I want to feel relaxed. I never expected something like this to happen. But I have to ask myself, What is a tragedy? This is not a tragedy. This has been hurtful."
Norman has received calls supporting his actions from several prominent people in the golf community. But nobody has come forth to corroborate Norman's charge. Nor has anyone come forward in support of McCumber's claim. After the conclusion of play that Thursday, McCumber and Shea scoured the 7th green looking for the discarded, dead insect but found nothing. Finchem has no interest in pursuing the matter. He says the rules of golf have spoken, equitably and with finality. But others feel there is too much at stake to let the matter go unresolved. Sometimes with facts, often without, they have assigned a reputation to McCumber and a motive to Norman and have debated the fine points of the case. For instance, is it believable that McCumber would pick up an insect with the tips of his fingers? Why wouldn't he just flick it away? On the other hand, if McCumber did pluck grass, would he be so bold as to throw the damning evidence into the air?
After the tournament McCumber went to Finchem and asked, "Have I ever done anything that would suggest I don't respect the rules?" The two men concluded that he had not. But the fact is, whether it is fair or not, McCumber does have a reputation among some of his touring brethren as somebody who is loose with the rules. It is a reputation he has been saddled with since his rookie year.