It’s always been so, in good part because of necessity.
There is simply no realistic way to police the Rules of Golf other than to rely on the honor of the Tiger who ventures into the woods.
And thus golf has a long history – and a reputation well-earned – for being a gentleman’s game.
There’s no despicable diving in the penalty box or flopping under the hoop in order to dupe the official because you are not just the player but the referee, too.
In golf we need to believe that personal integrity is more important to our opponent than victory won unfairly.
Perhaps it’s naïve and doesn’t always work, but it’s vastly superior to the logical alternative of an Orwellian world of suspicion and surveillance cameras.
Some will not, of course, play it as it lies but I’ve always taken some solace in the fact that the foot wedge comes at a price; paid spiritually if obviously not in cash.
In the late ’70s, my father-in-law played a round of golf with Richard Nixon at Los Angeles Country Club. The disgraced President was a single, looking for a group. No surprise he was ostracized: Nixon repeatedly shaved strokes off his score and then, at the end, demanded payment for “winning.”
In the urge to punish cheaters, however, golf has arrived at a dangerous intersection: the corner of Salem and Inquisition.
At a place where every golfer – especially Tiger Woods – is suspected of being guilty until proven innocent.
A place where viewers DVR and forensically examine golf broadcasts in the hope of spotting some infraction.
A place where there is little distinction made between inadvertently breaking a rule and cheating.
In the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Stuart Appleby didn’t know that every bunker on that forsaken course was to be treated as a hazard, even if it was outside the ropes and the venue for a picnic by a dozen fans.
Once he’d cleared out the folding chairs, coolers and blankets, he proceeded to remove a leaf.
And then took a practice swing.
A fan who’d been watching waited for Appleby to hit his approach before announcing that he’d be reporting him to a Rules official. The Australian took a quadruple bogey nine and instead of finishing one shot out of a playoff, fell to 17th.
Like Dustin Johnson at the same venue seven years later, Appleby should have known the rule.
But is it not also incumbent upon the fan to do the right thing?
Wouldn’t the honorable, decent thing to do have been to inform Appleby he was in a hazard after seeing him remove the leaf?
Not, it seems, in our Gotcha! world.
Emblematic of that devolution has been the viewer call-in.
Unlike, say, football, where a referee can openly blow a call and the result still stands, golf indulges millions of Rules officials from the comfort of their living rooms.
It’s not just unwieldy but unfair given how often some players – like Woods – are on air compared with others.
On Tuesday, golf’s ruling bodies – the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient – decided to essentially end the madness.
From January 1, the armchair rules official will be marginalized by a new Rule – 18.4 – that decrees a ball moving that can’t reasonably be seen by the naked eye will not result in a penalty.
“Where enhanced technological evidence shows that a ball has left its position and come to rest in another location, the ball will not be deemed to have moved if that movement was not reasonably discernible to the naked eye at the time.”
It’s already being called the Tiger Rule after Woods was assessed a two-shot penalty at the BMW Championship in September.
Woods moved a twig that he maintained only caused his ball to oscillate – move but return to its original position – which is allowed under the rules.
However, after reviewing the incident on a High-Definition camera in slow motion, it was deemed the ball moved and an infuriated Woods was penalized.
The incident also led to an unseemly debate, triggered by Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, about whether Woods was a cheat; something none of us, based on the evidence, could possibly know.
There will be those who say the system worked in Chicago because the ball DID move and Woods was given the appropriate penalty.
But for a rule to be fair, it should apply to all, equally.
If one of the 99 other players in the field in Chicago that week had been in the exact same situation and maintained their ball hadn’t moved, be sure there wouldn’t have been a camera on them and, thus, no penalty.
The answer isn’t to install more cameras because this entire debate isn’t just about the video evidence.
What the ruling bodies are addressing runs deeper than technology.
They’re going to the heart of what has made golf so special: the idea that a man’s conscience will be his judge and that, given the responsibility, he will do the right thing.
They’re trying to give golf its soul back and should be applauded.