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Right Call
RICH MUELLER
May 08, 2006
Columbia's coach gave the Lions a lesson in integrity
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May 08, 2006

Right Call

Columbia's coach gave the Lions a lesson in integrity

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This game can make you feel good about yourself even while it's breaking your heart. That may not be why we play, but it's a pretty good consolation prize, as I was reminded the weekend before last.

I'm the coach of the Columbia men's golf team, and on April 22-23 we were playing in the Ivy League championship at Ballyowen Golf Club, in Hardyston, N.J. Though Princeton had won four of the five previous titles, we had beaten the Tigers three times this year, and I felt confident we could give them a run for the trophy. Sure enough, when the final pair, Jason Gerken from Princeton and my guy, Matt Wong, came to the last hole, we trailed by a stroke.

Both players hit what looked to be great drives. Gerken thought that his had flown the gaping bunker on the right side of the 18th fairway. But the day was miserable, with heavy rain and mist so thick it was hard to follow tee shots. When Gerken got past the bunker, he could not see his ball anywhere in the fairway.

I noticed this and ran down to help look, joining a group of about 10 players, coaches and parents. The rules allow a player five minutes to search for a lost ball, and Will Green, the Princeton coach, started his watch to time the hunt. It is sometimes possible to get a free drop--provided everyone agrees on where the ball landed--but Green didn't think anyone was sure where Gerken's drive had hit.

I was walking back up the fairway when I saw the tiniest speck of white in the muddy grass. My first thought was, Damn, I'm good at finding these things! The ball was plugged pretty darn good. I could see only a dimple, literally. "Here it is!" I yelled. Green's stopwatch said 4:51. With the ball found, Gerken went on to make par, and we lost by a stroke.

I thought later about the irony of me being the one who, in a sense, cost my team the title. I guess I could have walked over the ball, or waited a bit longer to find it, or not looked that hard to start with. This is my first season at Columbia, which has won only one Ivy League title [in 1999]. It would've been great for us to win, but I don't want to succeed that way--plus I want to set an example for my team. If you really embrace what the game is about, then winning or losing becomes less important.

On the van ride home one of my guys said, "Coach did the right thing." When I heard that, I knew that I had.

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