So Tiger Woods has won the Masters, ending an 11-year drought at major championships. All is once again right with the golf world. There is zilch to complain about.
Come on, now. That can’t be true. Golfers are known to curse and caterwaul their way through 18 holes even on a sunny day in paradise. If you need someone to find a dark cloud in a silver lining, just hit up a linksman.
But I’m not here to trash ordinary golfers in the wake of Tiger’s extraordinary win. In fact, I’m going to defend them…against the USGA, the Royal & Ancient Club, Harvey Penick, Tom Watson, and other past-and-present proponents of the game’s sacred rulebook.
Cheating in golf isn’t always the mortal sin it’s made out to be. In fact, cheating at the Gentleman’s (and Gentlelady’s) Game is often necessary and even polite.
Rick Reilly has published an expose on President Trump’s consistent and blatant cheating on the golf course. The veteran sportswriter claims that 45 has kicked his ball out of the rough and onto the fairway so often that caddies refer to him as “Pele.”
Trump is also said to have voided his own penalty strokes in a match against Tiger himself.
Reilly reports that The Donald once even kicked ESPN announcer Mike Tirico’s ball into a sand bunker. (Given what we know about how creepy and threatening Tirico can be off-camera, I might have put his Titleist in a bunker and then stepped on it.)
At this point I’m supposed to offer a disclaimer, telling readers there is no political POV in this editorial. True enough – except for just one.
You won’t find out if I like or dislike Trump or if I’m a Republican or a Democrat or an independent. But I’ll offer a stand-alone opinion about the White House’s occupant…all White House occupants in fact.
It’s good that Presidents play golf. I don’t care whether they follow the USGA’s code of conduct or not. We need any President to exercise and stay healthy, preferably in ways that allow emergency business to be conducted at a moment’s notice.
Barack Obama’s sleek frame might have gained a few unhealthy pounds if he hadn’t compulsively played golf at every opportunity during 8 years in office. As for Trump, he’s already fat, and holds bizarre views about other brands of exercise. Golf may be the only thing keeping him from falling ill in his old age.
The issue goes beyond partisanship. Whether you’re a Republican who thinks Obama destroyed the Solar System, or a Democrat who thinks Trump is a Russian commie spy, the last thing you should want is a morbidly-obese POTUS with cabin fever and bad intentions.
Golf habits are a soft, easy target for criticism. Presidents who play golf are all trashed for it at one time or another, probably because of the game’s long-standing reputation as an insensitive hobby for rich elites. (Anyone who lives near a municipal course full of hackers in sneakers who guzzle beer and yell “Yee-Haw!” knows how just how ridiculous the “white-collar” golf stereotype has become in the 21st century.)
But what about the cheating?
The crux of the Reilly expose is whether the President has won money or awards with his “Pele” tomfoolery. According to the author himself, Trump has not – “Guys always say he’s fun to play with, always wins but then he doesn’t even take your money.”
That’s a crucial point. Nobody should ever cheat in a money match or a competition unless rules are agreed to be waived on the 1st tee.
But for friendly, recreational golf, I stand firmly in defense of cheating.
Maybe that’s because I break rules of the game myself. In fact, it wouldn’t feel fair not cheating in some circumstances.
Play the Ball as it Dries
“Play the golf ball as it lies” is supposedly the #1 holy rule. If you break that maxim, say the game’s aristocrats, there is no way to record an honest stroke total.
That’s correct – if your 2 favorite courses to play are Pebble Beach and Augusta National.
Courses seen on TV are perfectly manicured and generally free of mud, standing water, bare spots, and weeds. Playing the ball as it lies is fine for PGA Tour pros and country club snobs, who know that a drive in the fairway means getting a fairway lie, a drive in the light rough means getting a lie in light rough, and so on.
Players at public golf courses do not always enjoy such luxury. An accurate drive down the middle can wind up caked in mud due to poor drainage. What appears to be “rough” on the course map can turn out to be thick stands of nettles and other unsavory flora. Sand bunkers are often watery pits of gunk.
Golf Digest once printed a how-to on playing iron shots from hardpan (bare, dry dirt) on the fairway at public links. What a terrible, stupid idea.
Layouts are supposed to consist of grass, sand, trees and water. Hardpan is not a legitimate golf hazard unless a “waste area” has been specified on the scorecard.
Not to mention that a shot from the dirt or mud soils a golf club. Pros have caddies who can spend the next 15 minutes cleaning the grooves on a 7-iron. Hobby golfers don’t.
If I hit a drive in the fairway (or the rough) and it winds up on hardpan, I give myself a drop in the grass without penalty. Then I can play the shot as the course architect intended, not as dictated by a greenskeeper’s small budget.
Is it cheating? Technically yes. But the course and the rulebook combine to cheat the golfer when the layout is a royal mess. Free drops in the green grass are a make-up tactic.
If you can afford to play on perfect carpet and fluffy pink sand, then you can always hit the ball from where it lies without feeling ripped off. If you can’t, and you happen to hit into a “bunker” in which cow beets are growing wild, then cheat, cheat, cheat! Rake a small area to simulate normal sand, move the ball to that spot, and play.
It’s not abiding by the USGA rules. But it’s fair, and it’s sensible. It also helps a group play faster when there are no missed shots due to screwball lies.
No Time for an Easter Egg Hunt
Recreational golfers are constantly under pressure to play fast and clear the green for the foursomes behind them.
I’m in the minority when it comes to pace-of-play. People play golf to relax, not to be harassed by a marshal with a stopwatch. Golf is a poor choice of hobbies for anyone whose schedule is constantly packed anyway. If someone only has 2-3 hours to spare, they could compromise and try skipping a few holes or playing the front 9 only. Instead, they’re more likely to stand on the tee behind you and glare.
For decades, corporate golf mags have been running full-page features titled “Please Play Even Faster and Help Our Partners Collect Extra Greens Fees.” No, really, the paid ads from greedy yuppies advice columns are usually called “Pick Up the Pace.”
I’m happy to pick up the pace. But it’s better to do it through mild “cheating” than through running from shot to shot in constant anxiety.
Consider how easy it is for the wayward PGA golfer to find his Titleist in the rough. Crowds surround every hole – all the pros need is for 1 in 100 people to see where the bean lands. Recreational golfers have to hunt for missing balls on their own.
If you clearly hit a ball out of bounds, it’s only fair to assess the penalty stroke (sorry, Donald) and play another shot from the same location. But if you look for a ball that is acknowledged to have remained in play but goes unfound after a few minutes, USGA rules produce an impossible conundrum on a busy public (or private) course.
Rules stipulate that the golfer may search for 5 minutes, after which she is supposed to go back to where her previous shot was played and hit again. That’s an immense drag on pace-of-play and will likely result in a warning (or worse) from a pesky marshal.
I advise taking a free drop and playing on. You’re not gaining any more of an advantage than when Tiger hit a tee shot into a valley on the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship and a dozen kids ran after it and showed him right where it was.
Furthermore, by playing from the fescue, you’re still at a disadvantage compared to the pro golfer’s fate after a bad drive. Professionals get to play from tamped-down areas where foot traffic has neutralized the hazards of thick grass. The free-dropping recreational player at least has to hit from the real rough.
Some Golf Rules are Superstitious Nonsense
There is a common thread in senseless golf rules. Implementation of the rulebook tends to be “legalistic,” a useful word that a religious scholar taught me.
(I asked a devout churchgoing friend about the Fable of the Inquiring Murderer, in which your best friend is taking a shower at your house and a man comes to the door with a gun, declaring his intention to commit murder and asking if your buddy is there. The subject of the thought-experiment can lie, thereby saving his pal’s life, or do the “right thing” and tell the truth only to allow a tragic and preventable death to occur.
“Kant said you should tell the Inquiring Murderer the truth,” I said.
“Kant was a boob,” he replied. “Jesus would lie in that situation.”
Sure, he quickly added, the Holy Bible counsels strongly against lying. But every rule should have its exceptions. The idea of not fibbing to a psychopath to save your best friend’s life is a “legalistic” or lawyerly interpretation of a Biblical moral, leaving no room for wisdom or common sense.)
Consider what happened to Michelle Wie in 2008. Wie’s career has been considered a disappointment, a story of unrealized potential. But at the State Farm Classic almost 11 years ago, the Hawaiian golfer played 3 excellent rounds and sat in 2nd place going into Sunday’s final 18.
Except Wie walked the wrong way around a building before sitting down to sign her scorecard.
She was disqualified by LPGA officials.
The signing of a scorecard is important because it logs the athlete’s official stroke tally for the record, but voiding Wie’s score and disqualifying her from any prize money because she momentarily stepped a few feet away?
That’s like taking a touchdown away from an NFL team because of a scoreboard malfunction.
Whatever kind of honor and integrity the rules of golf are supposed to represent, on that day they represented stuffy ignorance and bad faith. Michelle Wie was in 2nd place in the golf tournament, fair and square. Any “rulebook” that states otherwise is bunk.
I encourage world-famous golfers to try “cheating” with their scorecard-signing habits after a round, just to bait the PGA Tour. Would they erase a great performance from Tiger Woods because he walked outside a scorer’s tent, or sat in the wrong chair?
Let them go ahead. Tiger’s fans would probably riot and tear down the tent so that everyone in the field had to be disqualified.
Finally, consider that many country club members who always play “strictly by the rules” are getting a helping hand from the course architect.
They’re cheating at golf. They just don’t know it.
Private courses designed between 1900 and 1990 often have sneaky design elements that are meant to benefit everyday players (read: blue-blooded club members) and humiliate everybody else.
Sound crazy? I’ll explain.
Note that experienced hackers tend to hook the ball from right to left off the tee, since they swing inside to outside. Their worst shots are “duck” balls that curve sharply into the woods on the left of the fairway. If there are woods left of the fairway, that is.
Meanwhile, casual golfers tend to “sweep” the club from outside to inside, causing a slice, or a ball that curves from left to right. Slices tend to be gentler and will fly farther than severe “duck” hooks…if there aren’t trees in the way.
Architects who designed links for country club members – back in the day when golf really was a rich man’s game – often cheated on behalf of the snobs. They knew that any benefactor of the course was a dedicated (if not skilled) golfer and would likely develop a hook with his or her driver. Newbies would almost always slice. So they designed holes that forgive missed shots to the left while punishing misses to the right.
In my hometown there is a private course that begins with parallel Par 4s. On the left of the 1st fairway (and to the left of the 2nd fairway) lies a “funnel area” with inclined slopes on either side, and a cart path to boot. To the right of the fairway, there’s no rough, sand, or water. There’s a barbed-wire fence, and a busy street just a few feet beyond it. Missing to the right – at all – puts the golfer out of bounds and facing a 1-stroke penalty. It’s highly embarrassing and can even cause damage to cars and houses.
Imagine the scene at a member-guest event when big-shot CEOs invite blue-collar friends to take part:
A factory worker steps to the 1st tee. He’s athletic, but inexperienced, only able to afford a round of golf every so often. He hits a nice high drive that curves to the right and just barely misses the fairway. It lands in the street, nearly smashing into a parked car. A woman begins yelling that he could have broken her windshield. The club members laugh while the guest hangs his head in shame.
Then the factory’s owner, Mammon Munneybagg, heads to the tee.
Munneybagg is overweight and bad at golf despite playing every weekend. He takes a wild swing and cranks a hooking drive that only stays airborne for about 100 yards. The ugly shot lands on the bank to the left of the 2nd fairway and bounces back toward the 1st hole, finding the downhill cart path and rolling another 100 yards into a cushy lie.
“Welp, looks like that worked out alright,” sneers the wealthy member. “Better to be lucky than good. Heh heh.”
Except he’s neither good nor lucky. He’s cheating. The course is rigged in his favor. And the same thing can happen again on the 2nd, since the valley funnels his hooked drives toward the green on the next hole as well.
A lawyer would say it’s all kosher and not a contrived result. Common sense tells us otherwise.
A Pro-Cheating Manifesto for 2019
What if golf’s rules aren’t really black and white, but full of grey areas that the starched shirts of the USGA just don’t want to recognize?
It’s time to fight back.
Defy the aristocrats and finger-pointers. Play the game in a way that gives you the most pleasure and satisfaction. Don’t worry so much about what is cheating and what is not, because golf’s rules exist in such a vacuum that they can’t apply everywhere.
And don’t listen to the snobs who tell us “there’s only one way to play.” Harvey Penick wrote Little Red Book while hanging around marvelous golf courses with unholy sums of money invested in groundskeeping. If he had written his “play the proper way” manifesto while getting stung by nettles in the fairway and picking through burdock in bunkers, rest assured Penick would have included a few great big asterisks.
Golf’s rulebook is not the Bible. Sunday afternoons on the course are different from Sunday mornings at the pew. Utilize your own sense of fairness in a solitary sport.
After all, when a golfer thinks rule-bending is always a sin, she’s only cheating herself.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.