ST. LEON-ROT, Germany – Athletes who play golf at the highest level aren’t nobler than athletes in other sports.
They are as flawed and imperfect as people playing in the NFL, the Premier League, Major League Baseball and other elite athletic organizations.
People who play golf professionally don’t necessarily have more integrity or character than pros in other sports.
The nobility in golf is in how the game aspires to be different. It’s in how the game holds its participants to higher standards. It’s also in how violating its honorable traditions punishes reputations.
Golf’s traditions create pressure to conform unlike any other sport.
You move your ball mark a half inch closer to the hole, you’re practically perpetrating a heinous crime.
PGA Tour and LPGA commissioners don’t necessarily need to hand down large fines to sanction rule breakers. There’s no punishment in golf more effective than the public shaming of a player. Cheaters are practically social lepers. It’s the most damning label to shake in the sport. Golf is different in how formidably its honorable traditions are woven into competition. How you win matters more in golf with sportsmanship so fundamentally rooted in how you make a score. You call penalties on yourself. You disqualify yourself when you realize you’ve violated a rule after you’ve signed your scorecard. You turn yourself in to your playing partners when your ball moves so slightly after you’ve addressed it that nobody else could possibly have seen it move.
It’s this unique nature of golf’s traditions that take us to Suzann Pettersen and the controversy she found herself embroiled in Sunday at the Solheim Cup.
Be absolutely clear here, Pettersen did not cheat teaming with Charley Hull to win a Sunday fourball match against Alison Lee and Brittany Lincicome. Pettersen did not break any written rules in the controversy that erupted on the 17th green at St. Leon-Rot. In fact, she followed the letter of the law.
Pettersen’s crime, in the eyes of so many, was that she violated the spirit of the game’s rules.
As Pettersen is learning, there can be a scarlet letter in that, too.
Pettersen didn’t know it at the time, but that’s the penalty she incurred at the 17th green, a penalty harsher than the one Lee was dealt after scooping up her ball there when she thought she heard the Europeans concede her 18-inch putt to halve the hole.
Lee’s penalty cost her a match.
Pettersen’s cost her something greater, something she is now pledging to win back. It cost her the respect and admiration of a lot of her peers and golf fans.
“Suzann is always one of the thorns in the side of the Americans,” Morgan Pressel said. “But there’s a way to do it, with class, and there’s a way to do it without it.”
Even some European teammates were upset by Pettersen’s stand.
“It’s confusion between both sides, and do you do the sporting thing and give a half?” England’s Melissa Reid told Sky Sports News HQ. “In my opinion I think that should have been done, but she didn’t.
“I think she just completely lost perspective of the big picture.”
Laura Davies, who has won more Solheim Cup points than any European in the history of the event, was harsh in her criticism.
“She’s been very unsporting,” Davies said on Sky Sports 4 TV. “We’ve got the point, but they’ve got the moral high ground.”
At Solheim Cup’s end Sunday night, Pettersen said she had no regrets. She said she had no problem holding Lee to a rule so many critics believe Lee was unfairly misled into breaking. Pettersen said she would have conducted herself the same given another chance.
Come Monday morning, Pettersen made a complete turnabout.
She publicly apologized.
Why? Maybe sleeping on it gave Pettersen time to better evaluate. Or maybe it wasn’t being able to sleep. Or maybe it was the overwhelming backlash from colleagues and fans outraged by her actions. Maybe it was the public shaming and what that was doing to her reputation.
Golf’s ruthless that way.
“I am so sorry for not thinking about the bigger picture in the heat of the battle and competition,” Pettersen wrote in an Instagram post on Monday. “I was trying my hardest for my team and put the single match and the point that could be earned ahead of sportsmanship and the game of golf itself. I feel like I let my team down, and I am sorry.”
Pettersen met with U.S. captain Juli Inkster to apologize before leaving Germany.
“To the fans of golf who watched the competition on TV, I am sorry for the way I carried myself,” Pettersen wrote. “I can be so much better and being an ambassador for this great game means a lot to me.
“The Solheim Cup has been a huge part of my career. I wish I could change Sunday for many reasons. Unfortunately, I can't. This week, I want to push forward toward another opportunity to earn the Solheim Cup back for Europe in the right way. And I want to work hard to earn back your belief in me as someone who plays hard, plays fair and plays the great game of golf the right way.”
In that last sentence, you’re seeing Pettersen acknowledge what golf aspires to be. In the entire apology, you’re seeing the pressure of golf tradition’s power to conform.
There were lessons to be learned by more than Pettersen in what transpired at St. Leon-Rot’s 17th hole Sunday morning. While the brunt of it came down on Pettersen, she wasn’t alone in the mess. That needs to be said.
You can trace the root of this whole fiasco to mistakes by the two youngest players involved.
Lee and Hull both screwed up, and Pettersen’s mistake was taking advantage of it. Her sin was seeing how Hull may have unwittingly and unintentionally duped Lee into believing the Euros were conceding a putt they actually weren’t conceding and then reveling in the misfortune. Her sin was in failing to step up and do the right thing by remedying the mistakes.
There may have been no rule violation in that, but there was no honor in it, either.
There was no honor winning that way.
There was nothing wrong with Pettersen deciding she and Hull were not going to concede any more putts in a match that was so close and so important. Lee was wrong picking up her ball without being certain the putt was conceded. It was a fundamental mistake she is largely being absolved in making. It’s an even larger mistake than it first appeared with Lincicome acknowledging late Sunday that she yelled out a warning to Lee before Lee scooped up her putt. Lincicome yelled, “Don’t pick it up,” but it was too late.
That’s damning to Lee, because if Lincicome was unsure the putt was conceded, Lee also should have been.
Here’s the problem for Pettersen, though.
Hull was standing closest to Lee aside the green with both European caddies at her side. Lee could see them. After Lee missed her 8-foot birdie putt and started walking to the 18-inch putt she left herself, Hull and the caddies bolted away, as if they were conceding the putt.
This is where Lee gets off the hook, and this is where Pettersen gets on it.
Though Hull never verbally conceded the putt to Lee, she communicated as much leading both caddies away, as if the putt were conceded. That’s not unfair to conclude because even the referee, Dan Maselli, was a victim of misdirection. So much so that he called out “the hole is halved in four” as Lee was scooping up her ball.
Pettersen was on the far side of the green, far from where Lee picked up. Maselli said as Pettersen was walking away, she told him the putt was not conceded. That’s where Masselli stepped in, talked to the American and European players and then penalized Lee, giving the hole to the Europeans.
Masselli had a chance to get both Lee, Hull and Pettersen off the hook there, but that didn’t happen, either.
Because Lee said she thought she heard somebody say the putt was good, Maselli knew he had an option to remedy the error.
Decision 2-4/3 in the Rules of Golf would have allowed Lee to replace her ball as near as possible to where she picked it up, if a statement by the opponent led Lee to believe her putt was conceded. Maselli said he talked to all the parties there, and he found no evidence somebody from the European team told Lee to pick up. He said he couldn’t apply the remedy because of that.
“There would have had to have been something uttered by the team, caddie, one of the helpers, one of the assistant captains or captain,” Maselli said. “But nothing was said.”
Two rules experts contacted by GolfChannel.com, however, said that there was room for discretion in applying Decision 2-4/3, discretion that could have allowed Lee to replace her ball and putt without penalty after picking up. One of the rules experts said Hull and the European caddies marching off the green could have been construed as a non-verbal statement that “reasonably could have led” Lee to believe the putt was conceded when you combined it with Lee saying she thought she heard someone say it was conceded.
Even with that, Pettersen had the best view of how the confusion unfolded, with Hull and the two European caddies marching away. Pettersen should have been able to see how the Europeans may have unintentionally led Lee into believing the putt was conceded.
Still, Pettersen insisted the rule be applied in a way that cost the Americans the hole.
It should be noted that Hull said she wasn’t moving away from Lee because she thought the putt was conceded.
“I was walking over to Suzann to discuss whether or not to give the putt, and then I turn around and she picks it up,” Hull said.
Hull’s explanation is confusing, as the putt was so short, and a simple glance and nod to Pettersen would have sufficed, without the misleading parade away from Lee. Hull’s tears after the match were revealing, too. She appeared genuinely upset about the manner in which the Europeans won, shaken by the unexpected turn.
Eight hours or so later, at day’s end, Hull explained the morning tears.
“I felt sorry for her, but at the end of the day, rules are rules,” Hull said.
Ultimately, Pettersen made the final call at the 17th, and even she concluded Monday that it was the wrong call to penalize Lee. While Pettersen might not have violated the Rules of Golf, she outraged a lot of folks who believe she violated the spirit of the game. In this sport, that’s also a cardinal sin, and now Pettersen’s repenting.
Pettersen’s apology might have come a day late, but it’s good for the game. It’s good for the Solheim Cup, and it’s good for Pettersen.
If Jack Nicklaus will forever be remembered for the great concession giving a putt to Tony Jacklin that ended the 1969 Ryder Cup in a draw (the U.S. retained the cup), Pettersen seemed destined Sunday night to be remembered for the great anti-concession. While Nicklaus will be remembered for the sportsmanship he showed, Pettersen seemed destined to be remembered for the lack of sportsmanship in the phantom concession.
This will follow Pettersen for awhile, but her pledge to make amends follows her, too. There is honor in righting wrongs. There is admiration for players who make great saves getting up and down after putting themselves in awful lies. Some of the most memorable triumphs in golf are made by players extricating themselves from difficult predicaments.