There are no gimmes in golf, especially with major titles riding in championship match play.
Elizabeth Moon raked away a gimme.
End of story.
This story should go no further than that.
Moon is young. She’s 17, and she made a very large mistake that cost her the semifinal at the U.S. Girls’ Junior last week.
Moon assumed her 6-inch putt was good after missing a 4-foot birdie chance to win the match, assumed that Erica Shepherd was going to concede the tap-in putt, and Moon almost immediately reached over to rake it away, before Shepherd could really gather herself and take in the larger picture in that jarring, head-spinning moment.
Shepherd is even younger than Moon. She’s 16. Her reaction in that blink of an eye, when her caddie asks her if she gave Moon the putt, is completely understandable in that highly competitive moment. Shepherd says she didn't give Moon the putt.
Shepherd’s reaction a few moments later, when she says she would have given her the putt, is understandable, too, with the gravity of it all settling on her.
This was raw, honest human reaction in real time with something intensely valued hanging in the balance.
Sportsmanship isn’t an issue here.
There was nothing unsportsmanlike in Shepherd’s reaction. There was no gamesmanship, no malicious opportunism in her reaction, no cunning attempt to take advantage.
It call comes back to the fact that there are no gimmes in championship golf.
You could argue that Shepherd could have immediately turned away, acted as if she gave Moon the putt, but there is a lie in that.
Players can’t take gimmes, no matter how short the putt. You stop, and you look for confirmation from your opponent before raking a putt away.
Because where do you draw the line? When are “gimmes” common sense, if ever? From 18 inches? From 2 feet? From 3 feet?
Jason Day goes at match play as mercilessly as anyone, ever. He is begrudging about concessions. He irritates opponents with his lack of generosity with short putts.
Is that unsportsmanlike? No, it’s a strategy that is inherent in the nature of match play.
Sportsmanship is a spirit of fairness within the rules.
Raking away putts without a concession veers outside the rules.
Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, says sportsmanship has its basis in the ancient Olympic ideal that you honor your opponent, because competition pushes humanity to higher levels of excellence. So, you honor your opponent as an ally in striving together for a greater good.
Sportsmanship is also about honoring the game.
Gimmes don’t honor the game, because there’s a slippery slope in how far some players could take that. A concession makes it clear cut.
This is no attack on the young Moon, not at all. She wasn’t being cunning or deceptive, or trying to get away with a gimme. She made a mistake in the heat of the moment, and then she showed great character in the way she handled her mistake. In fact, she didn’t blame Shepherd or the Rules of Golf. She was admirably and honorably accountable.
And what about the spirit of the game?
Shepherd’s critics say the spirit of the game wasn’t served with Moon’s loss. But would it have been served with a gimme? Again, with the slippery slope that leads to, with all the problems that players would create assuming putts are conceded? Really, aren’t you defending the field and the game itself when you require a concession be given?
For those comparing this to the Solheim Cup controversy that engulfed Suzann Pettersen two years ago, there are huge differences.
That was a two-woman fourball game.
American Alison Lee completely changed that dynamic when she said she thought she heard Europe conceding the putt. Lee completely shifted the heat on to Pettersen and Europe when she said that. The fact that Europe’s Charley Hull started walking away before Lee scooped up the putt added to the confusion. There was even an official’s option within the rules there that would have allowed Lee to replay the putt.
It’s a shame Moon lost the way she did, but there are no gimmes in championship golf.
End of story.