Cheating is bad, mmmkay?

(Photo courtesy of Circe Denyer)

A friend of mine recently played in a local tournament and was paired with a kid who plays on a college team. The course was tough and it was windy, and a lot of players slapped it around, including the kid. Aside from his tendency to walk or make noise during other peoples’ swings, he also had a tendency to forget a stroke here and there when reporting his score after each hole. My friend corrected him a couple times early on, but when it was clear the kid wasn’t going to sniff the cut line, my friend stopped confronting him on the back nine when the kid reported more questionable scores. I’m not sure I would have been so sympathetic.

I’ve witnessed situations in junior golf like this from time to time, but by the time players got to high school, I rarely saw anything that was controversial. And certainly never in college, although my experience there was sadly limited due to my inability to keep my golf balls in play. Reporting a lower score than you actually shot is the stupidest way to cheat because it’s so easy to expose. 

This situation got me thinking about several questionable rules controversies in the recent past, and my conclusion is that cheating in golf is a lot more prevalent than it should be in an “honorable gentleman’s game”. The transgressions might not be as blatant as the college kid above, but the mental space they come from is just as troubling.

Let’s be clear about what I’m talking about when I use the word “cheating”. Circumstances mean everything. When you’re playing with no money on the line, playing with mulligans or limiting embarrassment on the greens to three putts isn’t a big deal. The only impact is to reduce one’s handicap, which only hurts the golfer when they play in net score events. It speeds up play and is a victimless crime. Everyone has different goals when they play, and I’m not going to be offended unless you’re angling to take money from me.

Rick Reilly recently wrote a book about Donald Trump’s tendency to cheat on the golf course. Whatever your feelings about the guy’s politics (don’t get me started), it felt like a stretch to connect Trump’s habits of improving his lies and giving himself long-ish putts with a broader statement about a person’s character. Then again, I would doubt that he turns off his cheating ways when he plays with people for money, in which case he would be a despicable person.  

The history of professional golf is filled with plenty of examples of cheating, from the somewhat benign to full-on scandals. And in today’s world of professional golf, where there’s a camera everywhere and large amounts of money that may get in the way of doing the right thing, it seems like cheating is more common than purists like me would want to admit. Even suggesting that someone is a cheater is venturing into dangerous territory because once you’re branded a cheater, it sticks with you your whole career. So they say. I’m not so sure that’s true, because as you’ll see, there are some famous guys who haven’t really paid the price in the long run.

Here are some of the more famous examples of cheating (or attempted cheating) at the professional level: 

Matt Kuchar, 2019 Memorial  

Is trying to cheat considered cheating? While actual cheating might be cause for expulsion from the good guy club, professional golfers are notorious for trying to stretch the rules to ridiculous lengths, and trying to get rules officials to go along for the ride. Matt gallantly tries to make the case that his ball settled in its own ball mark on the second bounce, which I didn’t realize was a thing (you’re entitled to relief if the ball mark is your own, but not somebody else’s, which this clearly was). He wasted 10-15 minutes doubling and tripling down on this bullshit with a rules official before playing on.  

Tiger Woods, 2013 TPC

There’s absolutely no doubt that Tiger took a bad drop here. On a course he’s probably played a hundred times, he knew the ball never was flying over dry land before splashdown. It’s also important to note that Woods’ playing partner, Casey Wittenberg, backed up Woods’ drop, which only shows that intimidation can play a role in enabling bad calls. Woods would go on to win this tournament, and later in his career also had some interesting rules interpretations at the BMW Championship and the Masters. But the press and his fans love him, so carry on! 

Sung Kang, 2018 Quicken Loans Championship

Kang hit a shot that crossed a hazard early, but then supposedly rewrote the rules of physics and somehow cleared the hazard and recrossed into the hazard again. This allowed him to take a drop near the green, where he was able to get up and down for par. He was allowed to get away with it because it’s his judgement that matters (despite the fact that his playing partner Joel Dahmen vehemently disagreed and the rules official told him that he needed to be 100% certain where it crossed). This should have been a bigger deal than it was at the time, but this bad mojo doesn’t seem to have stuck with Kang.  

Billy Mayfair, 2019 QQQ Championship

Billy managed to break two different rules in 7 holes in the second round of last year’s QQQ Championship. The first was when he took too long to look for his ball, which is limited to 3 minutes. I’d be willing to categorize this one under “who’s actually keeping track?”, but he had actually told his caddie to keep track of the time while he searched for his ball. I guess he didn’t like the number he saw on the timer after finding it, because he didn’t call the penalty on himself and later fumbled around about whether he thought the rule was 5 minutes or 3 minutes (since he should have declared the ball lost and didn’t, this would later cause him to get disqualified). But then later in the round, he also had a greenside ball move while addressing it, and tried to argue that he didn’t cause the ball to move until confronted with the video evidence at the end of the round. It all was pretty shady.    

Lexi Thompson, 2017 ANA Inspiration

Lexi demonstrated the fine art of “inchworming”, where players will mark their ball and conveniently replace the ball closer to the hole or on a more advantageous line. She incurred a 4 stroke penalty (2 strokes for the infraction and 2 strokes for signing for an incorrect score), and eventually lost in a playoff. This form of cheating is probably the most common abuse of the rules on professional tours because it’s hard to detect. A 2017 “Undercover Tour Pro” article in Golf Digest claimed that there was one PGA tour pro in particular who was known to move his ball on the green with regularity. Based on the clues provided, it’s most likely either Vijay Singh (who let’s not forget was banned from the Asian Tour in 1985 for altering a scorecard) or Billy Mayfair (him again?).   

Patrick Reed, 2019 Hero World Challenge, 2016 Barclays Championship, etc.

Reed is probably the most publicized recent example of cheating, and it’s hard to have a clearer example of improving one’s lie than his sweeping sand away in his backswing at the Hero. Reed was penalized two shots at the Hero, although he wasn’t about to call it on himself, and went on to lose by two. Any person who’s picked up a club knows that you can feel the clubhead going through sand, so it’s very hard to believe he didn’t see or feel that he was brushing sand away from his ball. And it’s apparently not the first time he’s been creative with his lie, as Peter Kostis talks about in the article linked above. 

Gary Player, 1974 Open Championship

Younger people may have forgotten that Gary Player pulled a Patrick Reed before Patrick Reed was even born. Player played a fantastic left-handed shot from a scrub area next to the clubhouse on the 72nd hole of the 1974 Open Championship. The only problem is that he swept the dirt behind his ball away in taking a practice swing before playing it, thus improving his lie. Player also had a questionable incident in the 1983 Skins Game, where Tom Watson accused him of pulling out the leaf of a live plant that was behind his ball. Player claimed it was a loose impediment, and they had to agree to disagree. Gary was also known for initially setting up to his shots out of the rough with a wood, which flattened the grass in back of his ball, and then “changing his mind” to switch to an iron. He’s living proof that you can both be revered in this game while still having some skeletons in the closet.  

What are your favorite examples of cheating? Drop a comment and let us know!

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