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Cheating in Golf

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece delves into the game's dark side

Posted Nov 24, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece


While soccer looked into its very soul in the wake of the Thierry Henry handball incident in Paris last week, some golf devotees were seen to portray a very much holier than thou attitude with regard to cheating.  It was unthinkable, they claimed, that the royal and ancient game could descend to the levels which regularly besmirch soccer, especially at professional level.

Look at how readily golf's leading practitioners such as Tiger Woods, are seen to call a penalty on themselves for an unseen infringement.   And isn't it marvellous how weekend players, as a routine occurrence in club competitions, will go alone into deep rough and accept without question, whatever lie the golfing gods happen to give them.  

Before smugness totally consumes us all, it may be time to inject a little realism into our golfing world.  The fact is that cheating in golf is as old as the game itself.  Indeed there were cheats even in the idyllic world of PG Wodehouse who was once moved to observe: "In no other walk of life does the cloven hoof so quickly display itself."

I remember reading about a lucrative, hole-in-one tournament in Asia in which two conspirators crouched behind the green, using camouflaged electric blowers so as to push a colleague's ball towards the hole.  And apparently it nearly worked.

Then there was the claim by Nick Price who maintained that he knew of two players on tour who cheated.  And he added that there were "many others (cheats) who I have come across in my travels."  This view was shared by Tom Watson who raised quite a few eyebrows with his sinister claim: "We know who they are."  This came some winters ago while he was competing in Australia where he informed a Melbourne scribe: "The game (golf) is a game of integrity, but you are talking about money and you're talking about livelihoods."

Ben Crenshaw also acknowledged that all was not rosy in his particular golfing garden when he said: "Cheating is the absolute worst thing on tour, period. It's like 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."

It is rare that such claims are made regarding the European Tour but this is not to suggest that the problem doesn't exist, as we saw with current Ryder Cup captain, Colin Montgomerie, and the rumpus over a misplaced ball in Indonesia four years ago.  And at the very grassroots of the game, it is apparent that there are certain individuals with a fundamental character-flaw, which predisposes them to cheating.  Players who succumb to the use of the so-called leather mashie when alone and unwatched in deep rough.  And there is no reason to suppose that the professional game, with so much at stake, is any different when the television camera is focused elsewhere.

One of the most publicised allegations about cheating in the European game in recent decades concerned the Scottish professional, David Robertson.  During qualifying at Prince's for the 1985 Open Championship, he was disqualified by the Royal and Ancient for allegedly playing his ball from a wrong place.  The PGA later banned Robertson for 20 years and fined him £20,000 for alleged cheating.  Now a reinstated amateur, Robertson has always denied the charge. 

In his essay "Ordeal by Golf", Wodehouse memorably wrote in defence of the game: "Statisticians estimate that the average of crime among good golfers is lower than in any class of the community, except possibly bishops.  Since Willie Park won the first championship at Prestwick in the year 1860 there has, I believe, been no instance of an Open Champion spending a day in prison."

And we are familiar with innocent though nonetheless irritating indiscretions which are caused more by carelessness than any attempt at gaining advantage.  For instance, in the US Open some year ago, American professional Lon Hinkle seemed to stand sentinel over a young Seve Ballesteros on every green.

When asked to explain his actions, Hinkle said afterwards:
"He is a great young player but he is going to have to learn to mark his ball like a professional."  Ballesteros quickly learned the ropes to become accepted as a fearsome but eminently fair rival.  Unlike the cheats of whom Price concluded: "Once you do it, the guys all know who you are.  Forever."

No doubt Monsieur Henry has been contemplating this life sentence since his indiscretion against the Republic of Ireland at the Parc de France, an indiscretion, incidentally, which has prompted one wag to suggest that the name of Henry Street in Dublin should be changed to Handball Alley.  But before any further stones are thrown, golf should consider its own sins.

-Dermot Gilleece

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