An Essay on Golf Etiquette and Cheating

Published 16/09/2013 06:56:00

There's an old joke that has always, for me, defined the nature of cheating in golf:

A young pro, in one of his first events, is standing by his ball in the rough about 230 yards from the flagstick. Visualizing the shot he wants to play, he looks down at his ball, then at the flag, then down at his ball, then at the flag. As he does, sheer nervous reflex causes him to tap his right foot up and down. His shoe just happens to be so placed that with each tap, the grass is compressed; the ball sits up better.

Finally, he looks at his caddie with his best-practiced, gimlet-eyed, flatbelly stare. "What do you think it is?" he asks. "Two-iron?"

The caddie doesn't blink. He's been around, done his tour hard time. He checks the lie, the tapping foot.

"Not yet," he replies.

As golf explodes, and as more and more bottom-line, win-minded men and women take up the game, it is a statistical certainty that the incidence of cheating will keep pace. The question is what to do about it. How does the honest player protect himself?

A while back, I found myself chatting with one of the truly great names in contemporary golf, who not long before had played in one of those big-name, big-ticket outings. The big shot my man had played with was by any standards at the top of the heap, chief executive of the most prosperous and powerful enterprise of its type in the world today. And yet this guy had . . . well, let's just say he had displayed a remarkable flexibility with regard to generally accepted accounting principles in the scorekeeping department.

Cheating occurs at every level of the game and in as many forms as ingenuity, opportunism and competitiveness can devise. People cheat for dollars, and they cheat for pride. In theory, a ball replaced a mere, undetectable quarter-inch to the right of its mark may avoid a spike mark and render makable a putt that could be worth a buck in a friendly nassau, or $100,000 in a tour event.

To echo Tom Watson, we know who they are.


Start with yourself

Great reform movements are best initiated close to home. The late Walt Kelly's "Pogo" was a golfer, which is why he was able to make the immortal formulation: "We has met the enemy, and he is us."

I doubt there's a golfer among us who hasn't chiseled here or there, and every time we do, we weaken our own moral backbone.

Honesty begins at home, in other words. Which is not to propose some inversion of the Golden Rule: Don't do unto other golfers what you don't want them to do to you. Ninety-nine golfers out of a hundred are 99 percent honest. It's that last 1 percent in all of us that I'm talking about.

As the Bible says (or should have): "Let him who hath never conceded himself a three-footer cast the first stone."



On- and off-course cheating

OK, now comes the hard part. The other guy.

Here again, misfeasance divides into two main categories: Off course, which is another way of saying "handicapping," and on course, which includes scoring and such forms of "operational" swindle as lie improvement and the phantom practice stroke.

Begin with the former. Most locker rooms today have computers, which lend an air of technological respectability to the goings-on. At the end of the day, however, those computers are no different from the handicap committees of yore and the club secretary with an adding machine: They're still processing character.

Handicap cheats come in two sizes: Those who misrepresent their 'caps to look good in the mirror, and those who misrepresent them to win money and silver.

The former are the golfers one draws in hat pools and club scrambles-the 5-handicappers who can't break 90. The latter are the ones you find yourself playing against in the final of the fifth flight, who pack a handicap of 15 and reach the 500-yard par 5s with a driver and a 1-iron.

Against them, there is only one defense, to revert to the moral Pleistocene of 20 years ago, when a handshake still meant something, and to do as bankers did: Rely on the old dictum, "Know Whom You're Dealing With."

Oh, yes, and never but never play golf for money with someone with whom you've not played a minimum of 10 rounds.


The vigilant golfer

The vigilant golfer will display wary alertness both proactively and inferentially, as the circumstances require. For example, let's say that on a shortish par 4, your opponent disappears deep into the woods in consequence of an errantly played mashie-niblick second. First comes the cry, "Got it!" There then ensues a series of crashing sounds, following the fourth of which his ball reappears. Three strokes later, after a foozle, a squiff and a stab, he holes out for what your eyes and ears declare to be a 9.

"Damn," he declares, snatching his ball from the cup with a swiftness that prevents you from checking the brand, "that's a 6!"

Six! Which bests your carefully played 7, right down the middle and error-free except for the two left in the bunker and the putt any decent human being would have conceded you. Six! You look at him dubiously with the sort of expression that in another time and place would have called for immediate satisfaction on the field of honor.

"Yeah," he says, sensing your mistrust, and feigning a mild indignation. "One off the tee, two in the woods, three out, four on, two putts: Six."

You say nothing. Your expression is as steel but your mind reels with doubt and aggrievement. By now you're certain the ball he has played wasn't the one that sliced into the conifers.

"Yeah," he adds, "I had a hell of a lie in the woods. Lucky to find my ball and even then could scarcely take a practice swing. Took three, in fact."

His elaboration gives the lie to his accounting. What was suspicion is now certainty. But what can you say or do?

Over time, the experienced golfer will have developed, through practice at the mirror, a range of expressions capable of conveying varying mixtures of doubt and disapproval, from mildish skepticism to the unspoken outrage felt on coming home to find that the family has been put to the sword by Mongol hordes.

Without having been forced to say so in plain words, you want the cheater in your midst to head for the next tee thinking, "He knows. He knows!" I think you'll find that his ensuing play will more than compensate for any advantage gained through earlier defalcations.

Appropriately enough, in Scotland, the land which gave us the immortal pastime, there is a verdict that is handed down in trials where the evidence falls just short.It is called "Not Proven." What it means is: "Not Guilty-But Don't Do It Again." What you want to have in your psychological kit bag is the physiognomic equivalent of that verdict.


Your other options

Beyond this, you have but three options. The first, totally unacceptable, is to start cheating yourself. The second is never to play with the other person again. But what if it's your boss-or your spouse? The third choice is to take a caddie.

Modern popular culture offers two famous scenes in which caddies, in a golf context, play the role reserved for the avenging Furies in Greek tragedy. One is the film of Ian Fleming's Goldfinger in which James Bond (Sean Connery) employs a wily caddie who substitutes balls on Auric Goldfinger (the late Gert Frobe) and foils the cheater at his own game to win the match. The second is an 18th-green confrontation between two millionaires that occurs in "High Stakes," a story by the incomparable P.G. Wodehouse. The stakes have indeed been high: a much-coveted English butler. Here's how it goes:

"You don't suppose," said Gladstone Bott, "that I would play you an important match unless I had detectives watching you, do you? This gentleman is from the Quick Results Agency. What have you to report?" he said, turning to the caddie.

The caddie removed his bushy eye-brows, and with a quick gesture swept off his mustache. "At the 16th hole the man Fisher moved his ball into what-from his actions and furtive manner-I deduced to be a more favorable position. On the 17th, the man Fisher picked up his ball and threw it with a movement of the wrist onto the green. I took the precaution of snapshotting [him] in the act with my miniature wrist-watch camera, the detective's best friend."

It would be an irony if one of the game's most rapidly disappearing noble features, the caddie, should be rescued from oblivion by one of the game's most rapidly proliferating ignoble features, the cheat. The effect would be largely deterrent in nature. Is not prevention nine-tenths of cure? And better the caddie than I, because if I let my suspicions take over my time in Paradise, if I pay more attention to my opponent's situation than to mine, then it is Paradise no longer.

The sad conclusion is that every artificial step we take to protect golf against cheating is a pimple of suspicion that only disfigures this glorious pastime. We lose more than we gain. The only true, decent, long-range solution is to exclude from the game, at whatever level, those who are not prepared to put their full faith and credit behind its principles. Over time, as Tom Watson suggests, we will know who they are. If we do, we should not play with them. Or, for that matter, vote for them.


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