Why golf is the best, in my honest opinion
by Jim Donaldson
I see the Pineda Pine Tar Incident and I think of Jordan Baker and Bobby Jones, and of Chuck Wojtowicz and Patrick Henry Horgan III, too.
I see the Pineda Pine Tar Incident and I think — no, I know — that golf is the best of games.
Debate that, if you like, but you can’t debate this: Golf is the most honest, the most ethical of all sports.
In virtually every other sport, cheating is accepted. In golf, it is abhorred.
A Patriots offensive lineman once told me that he held on every play. “They can’t call ’em all,” he said. It was the same philosophy espoused by Rick Pitino when he was at Providence College and had his Friars playing what he called “mother-in-law defense — constant harassment.” There isn’t a team in basketball these days that doesn’t commit at least small violations almost every time down the court. They clutch and grab, as do hockey players and soccer players — when they’re not flopping and writhing in artificial agony.
When Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda used pine tar to get a better grip on the baseball in a game against the Red Sox on a cold and biting April 10 game in the Bronx, the prevailing feeling was that many pitchers “doctored” the ball at times, and it was better for both teams that the hard-throwing Pineda had a feel for where his pitches were going, rather than firing fastballs in the 90s without a clue.
But, on Wednesday night at Fenway, Pineda was so blatant, so obvious, in his use of the illegal substance — he had it slathered on the side of his neck — that it couldn’t be ignored, and he was ejected, as per rule 8.02 (b) that prohibits a player from using a foreign substance on the ball.
Boston manager John Farrell had touched on the topic of Pineda and pine tar before the game: “I would expect that, if it’s used, it’s more discreet than the last time.”
In baseball, as in most sports, bending the rules is acceptable. It’s only if you flout them that you are disciplined.
In golf, honesty isn’t merely the best policy, it’s the only policy. Rules aren’t meant to be bent, much less broken. Players are expected to call even the most minor infractions on themselves.
As Wojtowicz did in the finals of the Rhode Island Amateur.
It was 21 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was standing beside the green of the 12th hole at Wanumetonomy, a par-3 where Wojtowicz and his opponent, David Herzog, both were on in regulation.
Wojtowicz, who was one-down in the match, was lining up his birdie putt when he suddenly stepped away and announced he was hitting three.
No one knew why. No one had seen anything.
“I had marked my ball and picked it up,” Wojtowicz explained. “I fixed my ball mark. Then I put my ball down again. When I put my putter down about a half-inch behind the ball, the ball moved. I don’t think it moved two dimples, but it moved. It rocked, and it didn’t rock back. I was stunned.”
According to the rules of golf, if the ball moves once it is addressed by the player and does not return to its original position, the player must count a stroke.
“I don’t know if anybody else saw it,” Wojtowicz said that day. “But golf is a game where, if you see it happen, you have to call it on yourself. You have to play by the rules. If I hadn’t, and somehow had turned the match around and won, I’d have had to live with that.
“It was unfortunate, but I had to do it. I may never get to the finals again. It’s always been my big dream to get to the finals. But you have to play by the rules. I couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t done that.”
“That was a really classy move,” said Herzog, who went on to win the state title. “God only knows if anyone else saw it. But he had the courage and the character to call it on himself. That’s a credit to the game, and a credit to Chuck.”
Then there’s the story about Horgan, a football star at Rogers High in Newport, who’d gone on to play at URI and then turned to professional golf.
This was in the mid-1990s, when he was playing on the Nike Tour, trying to win enough money to move up to the PGA Tour.
Ten shots behind after two rounds in a tournament in Shreveport, La., he shot rounds of 69 and 67 on the weekend to force a playoff.
It was while waiting for the playoff to begin that Horgan discussed with a tournament official an incident in Saturday’s round. While bending to replace his ball marker on the eighth green, Horgan had accidentally dropped his ball, which fell on the marker and moved it. Without checking with someone from the rules committee, Horgan and Steve Gotsche, with whom he was paired, decided there was no penalty and continued to play. But Horgan learned Sunday that he should have assessed himself a one-stroke penalty. His failure to do so meant his scorecard was incorrect. And, because he had signed an incorrect scorecard, Horgan had to be disqualified. That not only cost him a shot at the winner’s purse, it meant he didn’t get any money at all. Despite everything that was at stake
— a tournament victory, the winner’s purse, enhancing his chances of getting to the PGA Tour — Horgan knew that there were larger issues to be considered.
“If I can’t call a penalty on myself,” he said, “I shouldn’t be playing the game. It’s the only way to play the game of golf.
Not everyone plays it that way. But, if there’s even a hint of dishonesty, a golfer’s reputation is forever sullied.
As Nick Carraway, the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic of American literature “The Great Gatsby” knew.
“For a while,” Carraway says, “I lost sight of Jordan Baker, and then in midsummer I found her again. At first I was flattered to go places with her, because she was a golf champion, and everyone knew her name. Then it was something more. The bored, haughty face she turned to the world concealed something … and one day I found what it was. When we were on a house-party together up in Warwick, she left a borrowed car out in the rain with the top down, and then lied about it and suddenly I remembered the story about her that had eluded me that night at Daisy’s. At her first big golf tournament, there was a row that nearly reached the newspapers, a suggestion that she had moved her ball from a bad lie in the semifinal round. … The incident and the name had remained together in my mind. … She was incurably dishonest.”
The late, great golf writer Herbert Warren Wind described the scrupulous honesty of the legendary Bobby Jones.
“Almost invariably, when the subject of Jones’s sportsmanship comes up,” wrote Wind, “someone will mention how he twice called penalty strokes on himself in our Open — once in the second round of the 1925 championship at the Worcester Country Club when, after he had addressed the ball, it moved slightly in high grass as he was preparing to play a recovery from the rough on the 11th hole, and once in the second round the next year, at Scioto, in Columbus, Ohio, when his ball moved the tiniest fraction as he was addressing it with his putter on the 15th green. Both times, no one else saw his ball move.
“In 1926, as it happened, Jones went on to win the Open, but in 1925 he finished in a tie for first with Willie MacFarlane, to whom he subsequently lost in an extended playoff, so it is often argued that the penalty strokes Jones called on himself cost him the championship.”
Those were examples, as Wind said, of “Jones’ tenet that there is only one way to play golf, and that is by the rules.”
Read more from columnist Jim Donaldson on his blog at providence journal.com/sports/jim-donaldsonsblog/