IN LIGHT OF RECENT EVENTS IN CAPE TOWN I THOUGHT I’D JUST REPUBLISH THIS BLOG FROM MARCH 2017…HAPPY EASTER!
You have, of course, heard someone say about something not quite right “that’s not cricket”. You have likely said it yourself. But I rather think that instead the phrase should be “that’s not golf”. Cricketers appeal for catches they haven’t made, sledge their opponents and indulge in general macho buffoonery. Where’s the sportsmanship in that? As golfers, we trust one another not to improve a lie in the rough, to keep the correct score, to respect one another when it’s our respective turns to play. In terms of behaviour lessons for life, it’s as much of a contest as Australia vs Austria (in either sport).
In his recent autobiography, Watching The Wheels, racing driver Damon Hill, who at the time was the world champion (having won it in a Williams in 1996), remembered Tom Walkinshaw, owner of the Arrows team by which he had just been hired, telling his sponsors: “Basically, if you want to win in F1, you’ve got to cheat…”
Hill was appalled. He was effectively being called a fraud. “My father taught me not to cheat,” he wrote. “I never do it, not even when playing golf on my own! What’s the point? I could just write down 70 and call myself a scratch golfer and never hit a ball.” It was no accident he cited golf as his example. Hill continued: “In golf the rules are well known, change very little [at least until the R&A/USGA announcement on March 1!] and are respected by the players because this gives their sport an integrity that is difficult to find in life.” Pretty much bang-on. Golfers’ adherence to the rules does make the game rather a law unto itself.
For example, one of the least glorious aspects of the beautiful game is ‘simulation’. (We’ll ignore Jose Mourinho’s mindless mind games.) Footballers frequently dive in order to attempt to gain a penalty or have an opponent sent off. They appeal for corners when they know it’s a goal kick. Trying to get an illicit edge is what they do. They berate match officials with a plethora of what we euphemistically call four-letter words of which ‘crap’ would be the nicest.
The credibility of athletics has essentially diminished to the extent that to a cynical public the contest comes down to whose chemist has lately performed a personal best. They say no man is bigger than his sport – Tiger Woods was never bigger than golf even if at times he seemed to be a bigger deal than the PGA Tour – but if Usain Bolt ever failed a drugs test then even Seb Coe may as well pack up, go home and take West Ham’s stadium with him.
Cycling? Do we need to go there? Well, certainly not to the top of Mount Ventoux. The title of Lance Armstrong’s first autobiography, in 2000, was It’s Not About The Bike. We know, Lance – it’s about the blood. It’s probably a matter of days before Bradley Wiggins takes over from Philip Green as the knight the Daily Mail most wants to see stripped of his honour. (Note for the lawyers: I do know it seems that Brad didn’t actually break any rules.)
So why is golf the way it is and surely always will be, even post President Trump? The late Herbert Warren Wind, doyen of American golf writers, explained it like this. “Golf grew up as ‘the gentleman’s game’ because of the unique dimensions and character of the playing area…since the play of each golfer could not be superintended, it was up to each man to obey the rules.”
He added: “When you and I were playing a friendly match, I did not sprint across the fairway to make sure you didn’t ground your club in a bunker…In a strokeplay tournament, when you and I disappeared around the bend to play the 8th and 9th, where there was no one to watch us, it was up to us not to cheat; if we gave each other lower scores than we made, this would affect every player in the field.”
In golf, the course, rather than the man opposite you, is usually ‘the enemy’. Perhaps that is part of the reason for its integrity. It’s mostly less personal. This manifests itself, for example, in professional tournaments in the way golfers so enthusiastically congratulate their playing partner, aka their opponent, for making a hole-in-one, even though that can only hurt, never help, their own cause. Obviously I’m not saying golf is devoid of gamesmanship but as pointed out by Stephen Potter, who wrote the seminal book on the subject, and with reference to what Wind said, if your opponent is in a bunker, you don’t stand over him counting out aloud his efforts to extricate himself. Marlon Samuels displayed no such compunction about ridiculing Ben Stokes after his wayward final over helped West Indies to beat England in the T20 World Cup final last April.
In some sports there is probably a generational dimension in play. Many a batsman in the halcyon days would head for the pavilion without needing sight of the umpire’s finger when he knew he’d gloved the ball to the wicketkeeper, whereas nowadays DRS, Hot Spot, Snickometer have first to be exhausted. Regarding Damon Hill’s remarks, in 1958 Stirling Moss lost his best chance of becoming the Formula 1 world champion he would never be because he defended his chief rival, Mike Hawthorn, at a steward’s hearing, thereby enabling Hawthorn to retain the points he might have lost which would later have made Moss the champion. I can’t see that dynamic would ever have worked between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg – and they were teammates.
Approaching 50 years ago in the Ryder Cup, golf’s most fervent cauldron, Jack Nicklaus conceded that putt to Tony Jacklin. We recall it not as a glorious one-off but because it exemplifies the game we play. Howzat?
You can follow me on Twitter @robrtgreen and also on my other blog: f-factors.com
This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the March 2017 issue of Golf Monthly