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Tiger is no Cheat

Dermot Gilleece writes that golfers playing by the rules but not the spirit is part of the game

Posted Oct 25, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

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There’s been a remarkable amount of tut-tutting and metaphorical finger-pointing about the claim by Golf Channel pundit, Brandel Chamblee, that Tiger Woods behaves in a somewhat cavalier fashion towards the rules of golf.  Though most commentators have been careful to steer clear of the C word, the general consensus seems to be critical of the world number one.  Which, in a way, is quite amusing.

The notion persists that Woods should have disqualified himself after the second-round of the US Masters last April, when he took an incorrect drop after finishing in water on the long 15th.  Which prompts me to pose the question:  When was the last time a tournament professional volunteered for such a penalty?  Where the natural instinct is to push authority to the limit, it has been a very, very rare occurrence.  As Jack Nicklaus put it: "If Tiger did that, he'd be putting himself in a position of saying, 'I'm above the rules.' You accept the ruling whether it's good or bad for you."

A fascinating aspect of the latest round of criticism against Woods is the level of surprise that the player should have again landed himself in controversy.  Yet it is a safe bet that these same observers would have absolutely no problem with rules infringements in other leading sports.

Like rugby union, for instance.  When Scotland were capturing the Grand Slam, astute commentators invariably drew attention to the back-row, which was acknowledged as the most crucial unit in the team.  About how they invariably pushed the laws of the game to the very limit, while being guilty on more than a few occasions of over-stepping the mark.

And in the current game, we hear about dubious tactics at the breakdown by certain teams who have become past-masters at outwitting referees.  And for as far back as I can remember, heroic status was accorded the so-called “hard men”, who would soften up the opposition through surreptitious skulduggery in the set pieces.  Did we ever dare call this cheating?  Not a bit of it.  It was simply manly aggression in a manly game.

Other critics of the modern, professional golf are amateur players who would think nothing of nursing their handicap, especially at this time of year when Christmas hampers are on the competitive menu.  Is this not cheating under another guise?  Most players wouldn’t dare acknowledge it as such, though in my book it’s impossible to see it as anything else.  

Professional golfers have almost always pushed official rulings to the limit.  And nobody did it more effectively than Seve Ballesteros, who elevated it to an art form.  There was also the celebrated case of no less a figure than Nicklaus in the World Matchplay at Wentworth when, after being denied a dubious claim for line-of-sight relief, he went so far as to have the referee in question, replaced.

Then there was the first-hand view I had of a highly controversial situation at Augusta National involving Bernhard Langer who carded a second-round 66 with the help of an incompetent rules official. It happened when Langer pulled his second shot into a hazard dominated by trees and marshy soil, on the long eighth.

Seeing a pine-cone directly behind his ball, the German asked if he could remove it and was told he could not.  Could he touch it on his backswing?  Absolutely.   "I suspect I moved it (the cone)," said Langer afterwards. To my eyes he most certainly did, which meant that had he not received the nod from the rules official, he would have incurred a two-stroke penalty under Rule 13-4.

In the event, the German made perfect contact with the ball, sent it soaring over pine trees to finish 20 feet from the pin, and holed the putt for a birdie four.  Afterwards, when I approached rules supremo Will Nicholson, he admitted: "We were wrong.  And it is our style to admit it when we're wrong. But there was no breach of rules by Bernhard in that he did as instructed."

Therein lies the key to the Woods controversy.  In common with the vast majority of tournament professionals, he will take every possible advantage afforded to him under the rules.  Sure, in may constitute a breach of the spirit of the rules, but so long as officialdom are satisfied with the situation, so be it.

The purists among us may not approve, but it’s what happens when vast amounts of money are involved in sport.  And when more sophisticated mouse-traps are necessary to keep sophisticated mice in check.

- Dermot Gilleece

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