Cheating: The Real Reason Golf Is So Popular
A non-golfer friend of mine, astounded when I told him that there were some 25,000,000 golfers in the United States, wondered at the cause for the game's remarkable popularity.I responded, at first, with the usual stuff about the game's virtues. I went through golf's mystical qualities, its Scottish roots and the opportunities for camaraderie and bonding. I mentioned the lifelong city dwellers who wax poetic about the chance to commune with nature and experience the game's undeniable aesthetic aspects. I even brought in Freudians who note golf's function as an outlet for man's natural aggression and competitiveness. And I drew on the countless writers who extol the game's character-building qualities, reminding us of its self-policing foundation as they detail the long list of heroes, including the immortal Bobby Jones, who have called penalties on themselves.And then it hit me, the real reason for golf's popularity: Something that makes it unique in the world of sport but is also the game's little secret -- the almost unlimited opportunities for cheating.According to the Scots, "without the wind, there is no gowf." In fact, without cheating there would be no golf as we know it, because the game is simply too difficult, too frustrating, and the rules too arcane. Without it, those who would want to play it more than once, let alone on a regular basis, would be limited to a handful of pros, scratch golfers and the occasional masochist. Twenty-five million? You've got to be kidding.Don't get me wrong. I believe golf demands and often elicits a higher degree of integrity than any other sport. And I'll match my dedication to the game and love of its traditions against anyone's. I do not wish to diminish the game or challenge the United State Golf Association's efforts to protect the Rules of Golf and educate the public about them. Nor do I come to praise cheating and certainly not to encourage it. I simply want to give it its due.Let's admit it. Cheating allows many of us to stay with the game and to do so with something akin to our dignity in tact. It is time to acknowledge this reality even while we continue to pursue the ideal.Rules? What rules?In short, while it sounds nice when NBC golf commentator Roger Maltbie ends his regular segments on the rules with "if you are going to play this game, you need to know the rules," the fact is, most people don't know the rules. And if you do know the rules, you don't have to follow them.Although cheating's specter periodically appears in the rarified air of the professional game, I want to concentrate on cheating's manifestation among scorekeeping amateurs in every day play with others, or especially when alone. Under such conditions prospective cheaters have the option of not keeping score and simply enjoying the game for itself, but few seem able to control their competitive juices. The cheating I have in mind is found most often among occasional golfers -- particularly the cart and beer types -- but also constitutes a significant element in the games of the 11,600,000 "core golfers," defined by The National Golf Foundation as those who play eight or more rounds a year.There is no need to dwell on the most blatant and offensive practice, common enough as it is, of hitting the ball seven or more times but putting down on the card a 6, 5 or even 4. Nor do I wish to hold forth on the "hand mashie," Goldfinger-like "found" lost balls, or the whiff passed off as a practice swing. I'll leave to the handicap chairman the despicable practice of "sandbagging" -- artificially increasing your score in order to benefit from a higher handicap in tournaments -- which has no redeeming qualities.As even this brief list of omissions suggests, it is the variety of cheating that makes it so appealing to golfers, who, as we will see, can often do it without even realizing it or having to acknowledge it as such to themselves, let alone others. Cheating at golf thus takes on the character of a marvelous pyramid scam in which most forms can be justified -- rationalized -- on numerous grounds. And few would seem immune. Even the sternly religious John D. Rockefeller could claim years ago, "Golf courses are the best places to observe ministers, but none of them are above cheating a bit."Mr. Mulligan I PresumeTake the mulligan (a do-over, that is, taking another shot without counting the first), for example. The nation's First Golfer, Bill Clinton, a self-described believer in "the God of second chances," has, of course, perfected the use of the mulligan even while pursuing his oft-stated goal of breaking 80 before his 50th birthday. Whether it is the five iron foozle on the sixth hole, or Gennifer Flowers on the 19th, he seems to think that any mistake can be denied and the game allowed to continue as if it never occurred.But if Clinton does seem to have a higher mulligan quota than the rest of us, few golfers are without sin here. The illegal practice is now so accepted that the newest computer golf games such as LinksLS feature a mulligan option. On the first tee at country clubs throughout the country mulligans are a way of life. While playing some of the most exclusive courses in the nation, I've seen club pros and low handicappers throw down a second ball as part of their preshot routine before they hit their opening tee ball. If their shot is acceptable, they scoop up the second ball; if not, the latter is pressed into service.The reasons for all this are literally endless. "I never miss that shot, it wasn't the real me." "I was trying something new." "I don't want to hold up play." "You moved during my swing." "Did you hear that truck backfire at the top of my swing." "Who flushed that toilet across the street?" For some, mulligans are not enough. One guy I've heard of is a devotee of "Shapiros" -- you get to use them when you screw up one of your quota of mulligans.Antidotes to Slow PlayThere are more subtle forms of cheating as well that allow us to continue to play the game and, since cheating can be the best antidote to slow play, permit the game to be played at something approaching a reasonable pace.Consider the lost ball rule. You're on a crowded public course and you hit your tee shot about 200 yards into high grass or leaves just off the fairway. There doesn't seem to be any need for a provisional (alternate ball), but when you arrive at where you think the ball is you can't find it. Under such circumstances, most golfers simply drop another ball and continue play. Few people know they are supposed to assess themselves a stroke and distance penalty and go back to the tee to play what would now be their third shot. After seeing the two groups already on the tee two hundred yards back down the fairway, even those who know the rule conclude it would be unreasonable to retrace their steps.To most people, this would seem to be a sensible "adaptation" of the rules. Others logically follow. Why should we treat spike marks (the gouges in the green or fairway left by golf shoes) differently than ball marks and not be allowed to repair them? Weren't both made during the course of play as the result of human agency? Beginning golfers unschooled in the "rules" see no difference and many who do know the rules tend to agree when given the opportunity to behave accordingly.Patchy fairways? That's why God (but not the USGA) invented "Winter Rules," which permit you to move your ball on the fairway rather than play it "as it lies" or "down." Come to think of it, why should you be penalized because some clod failed to attend to the divot hole your ball has found? Really good caddies who get to the ball before you certainly know that. Many new golfers figure that if you can move the ball in the fairway, why not do so in the rough, particularly when it is really rough? If you are playing behind or with such people -- but not against -- such a creative approach to the game makes a lot of sense. So much, in fact, that many more experienced golfers follow suit, whether or not realizing the nature of their transgression.Other "Refinements" of the GameThere are numerous other "refinements" of the game worth noting. But cheating becomes most critical for golf's continuing popularity when we reach the green. Who has not "taken a putt" --"Oh, I never miss those" -- at some point during a round in which you have entered a score. Some, of course, are "gimmes" and thus "unmissable," forgetting for the moment about Tom Watson's chronic problems with two-footers.Or consider those times when greens seem more like ground under repair. Well, when faced with a 65 footer a maximum of two putts is certainly in order. And what about all those distractions -- cars beeping, golfers moving, planes flying, cell phones ringing, etc. -- that caused your first putt to go three feet past? Now honestly, do we really want that beginning golfer to attempt his or her sixth putt? Without gimmes some neophytes and legendary yippers might never finish a hole.Howard Rabinowitz is Professor of History at the University of New Mexico and a veteran freelance golf writer. He disdains mulligans, knows how to count and plays the ball down, even in the rough, but can become truly innovative when the circumstances warrant.