Some years back, I was playing in the match play championship at my home club. It was an early round (possibly even the first), but I ended up having a terrific match with my opponent.
After watching the lead change hands like a hot potato, my opponent made a tremendous up and down on the 18th to take us to extra holes.
On the tee first, he pulled his drive left into heavy trees, and, pressure somewhat alleviated, I replied by nailing mine down the centre. Against the odds, as we ventured deep into the woods, I stumbled upon a ball in a minor clearing.
“A Titleist 4?” I asked.
“Yeah, with three blue dots,” came the reply. It matched, and through no small feat, he managed to steer a low punch back into the fairway leaving himself roughly 70 yards to the pin. Crucially, he was back in the hole.
Now, with about 100 yards to a back-left pin, anything middle of the green and I was long odds on to win the hole and match. Long and left was the one place you couldn’t miss. Needless to say, you know where my sand-wedge went and I left myself short-sided in the rough with the green running away. It was at best a two-out-of-ten up and down.
We’ve all been there. Such swings and roundabouts are what make match-play golf the most enjoyable format for golfers of all levels. My head spinning, and to the undoubted horror of sports psychologists everywhere, I had visions of myself duffing the chip and somehow making six.
I was roused from my mental self-flagellation as I heard my name called and I turned to find the man with whom I had been locked in battle for more than four hours approaching me with hand held out.
More than a little confused, I extended my hand half expecting that I had dropped my ball marker or, pitch-mark repairer.
“It wasn’t my ball,” he said, “I was playing a black 4, that one was red.”
And just like that, he conceded the match and shook.
The great irony was that the markings were identical to his own to the extent that it was highly likely that it had been his ball at one stage, just not that day and hole. It would have been easy for him to ignore the inconsistency, or to even chalk it down to flawed short term memory, after all, there were no cameras to catch him out, no spectators to raise a red flag, and even his own opponent was 100 per cent convinced that it was the correct ball. To this day, it remains one of the greatest examples of sportsmanship that I have witnessed.
But that is golf. The game is governed by a code of ethics that set high moral standards and challenges each player to largely govern themselves. That is the spirit of the game.
I couldn’t help but think of Joseph McMenamin’s code of ethics recently as I watched Matt Kuchar all but tee his ball up in a waste bunker/area at the Porsche European Open. Yes, the official was on hand, and yes, Kuchar had been cleared to remove loose impediments so we’re not talking about cheating here. No, what we are talking about is the spirit of the game.
In the professional game, the stakes are high. I get that. And as long as there’s been money or acclaim in sport, there have been those willing to bend and even break the rules to get a slice of the pie. Again, I get that.
The thing is though, increasingly it’s been deemed OK for players to seek favourable and questionable drops, and nobody is holding them to account. Think Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy at the WGC Mexico this year, think Kuchar again at the Memorial as he tried to argue that his ball had plugged on the second bounce. I mean, really, the second bounce? Think Bubba Watson as he claimed relief from the middle of a bush at the Phoenix Open some years back by claiming that his follow through might disturb the burrow of the iguana or whatever creature had decided to make its home in the desert scrub.
Again, the rules allowed for it, albeit via the loosest possible interpretation.
So, who is at fault? Is it the players? The rules officials? The rule setting USGA and R&A? In reality, all of these, along with several others, must shoulder their fair share of the blame.
The spirit of the game matters little when there are thousands of dollars at stake.
All is fair in sport and war, it seems.