Tournament golf is now more honest than it has ever been, not least because of the influence of the television camera’s all-seeing eye. Though certain transgressors have cursed its intrusiveness on rules infringements, most would agree that TV’s overall impact has been positive.
It makes for quite a change from the recent past when triple Major winner Nick Price was moved to remark: “There are two players I know of for sure on [PGA] tour who cheat, and many others who I have come across in my travels.” And Tom Watson, a stickler on such matters, made the chilling claim: “We know who they are.”
Ben Crenshaw was another leading player to raise his head above the parapet, when he said: “Cheating is the absolute worst thing on tour, period. The people who play golf are one big family, and once you get cast out of the family, there’s no way to get back in.”
Which would explain the very forceful reactions of current Ryder Cup representatives, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, to the three-month ban imposed by the European Tour on Elliot Saltman at this time four years ago. The Scot was found guilty of “a serious breach of the rules” during a Challenge Tour event in Russia the previous September.
Having secured his European Tour card while waiting for the outcome of a disciplinary hearing, Saltman was accused by his two playing partners of replacing his ball incorrectly on the greens at least five times during a particular round. In June 2011, while following the US Open at Congressional, he came up with a nice line in self-deprecation when tweeting: “Great round from Rory [McIlroy] yesterday. With a bit of creative ball-marking he could have taken two shots off that easily.”
Westwood, as world number one, claimed that Saltman should have received a world ban, having noted that the Scot had subsequently played in a third-tier event in Spain. And Kaymer, who was then world number two, said: “The player should be honest with himself. He’s cheating not only himself but other players as well. I could not live with that.” It was the first time a player had been banned from Europe’s premier events since Johan Tumba’s 10-year expulsion in 1992, after changing his scorecard at tour school.
All of which was very different from the £30,000 fine and suspended two-month ban imposed on the 2011 Irish Open champion, Simon Dyson, 13 months ago. While finding that Dyson’s actions in using his ball to press down spike-marks on the line of a short putt were deliberate, a European Tour disciplinary committee were satisfied it did not constitute “a premeditated act of cheating.” The player’s previous good conduct was also taken into account.
From the very grassroots of the game at club level, it is apparent there are certain individuals with a fundamental character flaw which predisposes them to cheating. And why should the professional game be any different, especially with so much more at stake?
In his charming essay Ordeal by Golf, PG Wodehouse described the game as the infallible test of character. “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone,” he wrote, “with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well. The man who can smile bravely when his putt is diverted by one of those beastly wormcasts, is pure gold right through.”
In tournament action these days, the problem for the would-be cheat is that he has very little chance of having “only God” watching his actions. Wherever he happens to be on the course, a camera is likely to follow, or it could be a wandering spectator seeking the nearest point of relief. Then there are rules officials, more numerous than they’ve ever been, with as many as two on each nine, where there used to be only one for the entire course.
Another significant deterrent is the professionalism of modern caddies. Proud of their role within the game, they talk a lot, not only between themselves but to other players. And if their ‘master’ happens to be in the habit of playing fast and loose with the rules, it won’t be long before the word goes around.
Meanwhile, the most extraordinary story I have come across regarding cheating in golf has to do with a competition from nearly 40 years ago. Involving a cheat who sought belated redemption, it concerned the 1976 Idaho schools’ championship in the US, and the eventual presentation of the second-place prize to the Coeur d’Alene team, 20 years after the event.
Harm Longhurst, coach to one of the competing schools, witnessed a certain player take four strokes at a short hole, where only three went on the card. Longhurst apparently said to the player: “You better confess. We go to the same church.”
Nothing further was said, however, and it was 1996 before the player finally confessed, by which stage Longhurst was dead. After living with his sin for 20 years, Brett Robbins wrote a letter to the Idaho High School Athletic Association admitting how his cheating had secured second place for his team, Pocatello, 10 strokes behind the winners, Caldwell. Had the scores been correct, Pocatello would have faced Coeur d’Alene in a play-off for runners-up.
So, what was the impact of his disclosure? On the downside, however, Robbins’ letter was made public, with the result that his family were bombarded by the local media. Decidedly positive was a former rival’s comment: “I can speak for my team-mates and say that none of us hold any grudges. In fact I’d like to shake the guy’s hand.”
State officials shared this view, with one of them commenting: “This sets a great example to stand up, be honest and be proud of yourself.” Another remarked: “It must have been quite a burden for him and, quite frankly, I’m glad he [Robbins] lost a few weekends thinking about it. The human conscience is truly amazing.”
What’s your opinion? If some comparable act of cheating happened at your club, would you expect the culprit to be as forthright as Robbins, some years after the event? My own view would be to consider such action as self-serving, and liable to create more problems than it solved.
Though Robbins, who couldn’t live with his guilt, saw no other way of salving his conscience, he could have confessed his dark secret to a close golfing friend. This could have left him suitably humbled without involving other players in pointless recrimination.
Either way, the moral of the story is that before engaging in cheating and everything it entails, you should first be satisfied you can live with the consequences.
Sunday Indo Sport