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Philosophy and Sport

You’ll Swing For This!

Adam Carter examines the most morally corrupting sport of all.

Tom: “So, what did you have back on hole six, buddy?”
Buck: “I told you – I had a par.”
Tom: “I know that’s what you said, but are you sure?”
Buck: “Are you ... calling me a cheater, Tom?”
Tom: “All I’m saying is that you were two in the bunker, four on the green and one putt. That’s a five. So that would be a bogey.”
Buck: “Now you just hang on there – we can sort this out. It was two in the trap, one shot to get out and one putt. That makes four.
Tom: “I saw you muff the first sand shot, man.”
Buck: “What are you talking about?”
Tom: “I’m talking about the muff that went about six inches. I saw it. You didn’t think I saw it but I did.”
Buck: “Tom, we’ve known each other since we were kids. Do you really think I’d do a thing like that?”
Tom: “Go to hell, you son of a bitch.”

Welcome to golf, the game of personal integrity. I’ve found that it is the only form of organized competition in which penalties and rules are subject to our consciences, and in which the majority of its players know less than half of them. In any other popular industry, this lack of structure would be disastrous. Riots would likely erupt, and rules would have to be simplified and made known. Oh yes, and enforced. In golf, however – this kind of chaos is a precept, or as the game’s crusted patrons quip: tradition.

The first problem: the frequency of opportunities for cheating.

This is something I attempted to roughly measure last year, in a practice round with some trusting friends. After 18 holes at Moberly Country Club (Missouri), I was astonished to find that I could have cheated and likely pulled it off a total of 41 times in those four hours, and in a myriad of ways. This number is dangerously high compared to sports and games that are structured with clear-cut rules, instant replay cameras and omnipresent whistle wielding officials.

Imagine, for example, how unfeasible it would be to cheat two goals in a championship soccer game, or to ‘bluff’ a checkmate in chess (assuming your opponent is watching the board.) Not a chance. Five to 10 strokes in golf, though, can and are shaved with relative ease, especially by competitive, mid-to-high handicappers who, incidentally, introduced me to the game as a youth. So how does golf provide these possibilities? Or maybe the question should be: how do we present them to ourselves?

I decided, during my experiment that day, to note which cheating techniques I considered to be the most reliable. Clearly topping this list was the “I found it!” hoax which, in 15 years, I’ve never seen not work. It is a process by which the player pretends to ‘find’ his lost ball by means of dropping a different one from his pocket. This is the lowest of the low, and at the same time, it poses great difficulty for an opponent to disprove. It comes down to your word against his, and the evidence is usually out of bounds.

The ‘magic pencil’ technique is also par for the course, and very user-friendly. Simply volunteer to keep the score and, every now and then, forget a stroke and hope that no one catches on. Vijay Singh was banned from the Asian tour for two years for allegedly employing this method to make the cut in the second round of the 1985 Indonesian Open, (though his reputation recovered and he went on to win the PGA Championship in 1999). But that’s professional golf, in which cameras may swing your way. In the amateur and social ranks, when the average swinger talleys 90 strokes and the only documentation is in your back pocket, it’s tough to remember who had what on any particular hole, especially if players have been drinking. Thus, the power of the pencil. Absolute power to the pencil with the eraser.

Rounding out this list of ‘easiest cheats’ are: improving one’s lie in the rough, switching balls from a Top-Flite to a balata in the fairway, donning a bag of illegal equipment (be wary of anything whose decal is of a neon serpent) and playing by your own version of ‘winter rules’. In ‘winter rules’ everyone by (informal) agreement disregards certain inconvenient regulations. However, what specifically constitutes ‘winter rules’ has yet to be clearly defined and is thus wide open to abuse.

Problem number two: few people know the game’s rules.

In 2003, the United States Golf Association, in conjunction with the Royal and Ancient committee, issued its latest revision to the multi-hundred page Decisions on the Rules of Golf, which is visibly fatter than the New Testament. PGA club professionals are required to pass an exam on these rules for certification, and this involves months of tedious study. Professional golfers, whose livelihood demands a strict abidance to these rules, are continually stumped and must appeal to rules officials and committees who are also, many times, stumped and forced to make ‘off-the-cuff’ decisions. For example, what happens if a crazed pelican picks up your golf ball from the fairway and drops it three feet out of bounds? Another head-scratcher: What if it was your opponent who purposely shooed the pelican toward the out-of-bounds stakes and then gently coaxed the bird into setting it down?

Cases like this torture the minds of the rules committees, who can flip the pages for hours without finding clear-cut instructions. The typical golfer, I’ve found, usually tries to “do what’s fair.” But what’s fair for one player is not always fair for his opponent.

But these are just the head-scratchers. More obvious rules such as: what to do if you hit your ball out of bounds (stroke and distance) are commonly breached by players who don’t know the proper penalty or, emotionally, find it too severe. “I’ll just drop a ball where it went in the woods and take a stroke,” is the most common reply I’ve witnessed to this dilemma, and this is completely incorrect. It also occurs nearly each round, and in groups of players who have played the game all their lives.

So with constant cheating opportunities in a game of rules with which its players are, for the most part, unfamiliar, the result is as you would expect: Machiavellian – a game in which the shrewdest swingers, with the biggest erasers and fastest carts, frequently take the glory. The opportunities are always there, and because of this, reason leads us to be suspicious; the suspicion leads to temptation. Maybe this is why, in a recent survey commissioned by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, 82 percent of 401 high-ranking executives admitted to being lessthan- honest on the golf course. In other surveys that polled the general golfing public, the number of those who admit cheating is close to 80 percent. But, of course, those comprising the remaining twenty percent may well have lied.

With this said, however, I want to turn to the obvious inverse: golf is, for these very same reasons, a game that provides us with the greatest chance to demonstrate our character. Why? Because the opportunities are there to do so. Possibly 41 times a round. The legendary player Bobby Jones once lost a tournament by calling a famous penalty on himself that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Much as the Singh incident has not been forgotten, neither has Jones’. And nor will the remarkably honest (and dishonest) acts demonstrated by weekend golfers be forgotten by their hometown foursomes. It is these defining moments that challenge our virtues much like tax returns do, and in ways that, for example, football, basketball and bowling couldn’t possibly – these character-building opportunities to do the right thing or to crumble. Maybe that’s the tradition that the game’s elders are always gabbing about over brandy. I suspect that it’s precisely these moments of truth, remembered long after the score has been counted, that is why the friends we make on the golf course are, by and large, friends we make for a lifetime.


Adam Carter has degrees in journalism and philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is a freelance writer and philosopher.

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