Wrong calls and wrong balls.
In the last week or so, we’ve been reminded yet again how golf is different from other sports but also how the people who play golf aren’t as different as those in the game would like us to think.
We’re reminded of that in New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter’s wrong-call controversy and in the LPGA’s wrong-ball debacle.
Golf may be different, its rules and culture different than other sports, but it’s played by human beings who are as flawed as athletes from any other sport.
Golf’s not without sin. We’ve seen high-profile accusations of cheating among the game’s biggest names over the years. We’re hearing ugly whispers about it now in the women’s game.
Golf isn’t immune from athletes getting caught up pursuing success at the expense of character, from choosing achievement over personal integrity. The difference, ultimately, is in the virtue of the game and what it demands, more so than in the virtue of the people who play it.
Wrong calls and wrong balls.
In the last week or so, we’ve seen Jeter hoodwink umpires into believing he was hit by a pitch in a game for first place against the Tampa Bay Rays. And we’ve become aware of LPGA commissioner Mike Whan addressing tour members’ concerns about “way too many” suspicious rules incidents in their game this year.
In the end, the resolutions in these matters differed not so much because of the differences in the people who play the games but in the differences in the games themselves, in the history, standards, culture and expectations within each game.
Jeter pretended he was hit by a pitch when he knew the ball never touched him but struck the handle of his bat. He was awarded first base with his ruse. And even though replays clearly showed he was not hit, Jeter won’t be vilified as a cheater by his fellow pros.
“It’s part of the game,” Jeter told reporters. “It’s my job to get on base.”
Within the culture of his sport, Jeter is a clever competitor, a guy who used the accepted practices of his game to help his team. His sport’s standards molded his behavior. His acting was a byproduct of his sport’s culture.
The LPGA’s wrong-ball debacle is complicated.
If you missed it, Shi Hyun Ahn and Il Mi Chung were disqualified from the CN Canadian Women’s Open for playing the wrong balls at the final hole in the first round.
It’s complicated because though it was ruled that the players ultimately turned themselves in, there were reports of questionable intentions. Ahn’s caddie, Tim Hegna, told both Golfweek and the Web site Waggle Room, that his player knew she played the wrong ball and wanted to cover it up. It’s complicated because there ended up being multiple versions of what happened, a problem that threatened to grow messier as it ignited outrage among tour players over other accusations.
“There have been way too many suspicious incidents this year,” tour veteran Katherine Hull told Golfweek. “And if people aren’t going to play by the rules, they don’t deserve to play.”
Ultimately, Whan intervened, not just in settling the wrong-ball issue, but in addressing larger player concerns about possible cheating. He spent an hour addressing the matters in a mandatory player meeting at last week’s P&G NW Arkansas Championship.
“The resolution was that there was no wrongdoing,” Jane Geddes, the LPGA’s senior vice president of tournament operations, said of the wrong-ball violation. “There was no cheating. The players in question hit the wrong balls. It was discovered after the round, and as soon as they discovered it, they went to find the officials.”
Geddes said Whan laid out the ruling for all the players and opened the meeting for discussion.
“We addressed all of it,” Geddes said. “We took our time. Mike delivered a couple important messages. The first thing he said is that he would protect the game of golf. The second thing is that he would make sure if there was any disagreement, or a judgment needed to be made, he would make sure all the facts were available before he made a call.
“True to his word, he made sure we got all the facts. He talked to all the players and caddies. There was a lot of hearsay and allegations, but the fact of the matter is that regardless who said what, the players did the right thing. They went to a rules official, and they disqualified themselves. That’s the worst penalty somebody could get.”
Geddes is an 11-time LPGA winner with two major championships to her credit. She said she found the entire issue disappointing, but she also acknowledged that the game’s not without sin.
“Everyone feels bad that we even have to address this,” Geddes said. “But I know as a former player, cheating’s been around a long time.”
Geddes said Whan shared a story from LPGA founder and Hall of Famer Louise Suggs with his players during the mandatory meeting. Suggs told Whan what he was dealing with was nothing new. She shared issues she dealt with in the tour’s earliest days.
“Things happen on every tour, everywhere,” Geddes said. “It’s not how the game’s supposed to be played, but we can’t control everyone’s actions. We can only have control when we know things are happening.”
Whan reminded players the nature of their game demands more of them, including their responsibility to call each other out “when in doubt.”
“Hopefully, what the meeting satisfied is players knowing Mike would protect the game,” Geddes said. “Secondly, he would do everything in his power to get all the facts in a situation. Thirdly, if he found somebody cheating, he wouldn’t take it lightly. He would take whatever action was deserved.”
Geddes said that included the possibility of suspensions.
Because while the game of golf may be virtuous, the people who play it aren’t necessarily any more virtuous than athletes from other sports. The game’s higher standard demands more vigilance from its overseers and players alike. It demands wrong balls get right calls.