Golf's greatest taboo makes an unwelcome return

CHEATING is the great unmentionable in professional golf and until this summer the most notorious rumour in golf was that Gary Player had cheated his way to victory in the 1974 Open Championship, courtesy of his caddie dropping a second ball at the 71st hole after the South African hit his tee-shot in the rough. It is unmentioned no more.

"That accusation was directed at my caddie, Rabbit, the first black man to caddie in the Open. People would shout at him ‘Hey darkie, get out of our country,’ " Player said in a recent interview. "What they were saying was very cruel and an attack on Rabbit, because we had a six-shot lead. Is there any common sense that says Rabbit would do anything like that with a six-shot lead?"

Perhaps Player’s forthrightness in dealing with the issue that has dogged his career has encouraged others, perhaps it’s simply the fact there is now so much money at stake, but 2003 has been the year that the issue of cheating in professional game has finally come out of the closet in a big way.

First there was Tiger Woods, who accused many of the world’s best players of cheating - at least one of them knowingly - through the use of "hot" drivers. Indeed, word has it that the world’s No1 has irritated several of his rivals by confronting them personally about the problem. The US PGA tacitly conceded that Woods had a point by announcing it will introduce voluntary testing of drivers at its event from the start of next season.

"We need to get rumours out of the game," PGA commissioner Tim Finchem said. "Testing will take the mystery out of the game. Players will have the comfort of knowing their equipment is conforming."

Unfortunately, there is no scientific test available to deal with the rumours now dogging the women’s game. According to the US-based Golf World magazine, the LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw recently held a meeting with the South Korean contingent on his tour to discuss allegations about their behaviour.

"[The meeting was called] to make sure they understand the rules and regulations of the LPGA and the rules of golf," Votaw later confirmed.

The meeting came after players, caddies and agents on the LPGA Tour detailed a series of alleged infringements, including claims that some Korean fathers had acted as directional markers for their daughters (indicating where they should hit), given hand signals to indicate club selection and offered mid-round coaching advice - all against the rules. It was also claimed that one father moved his daughter’s ball from behind a tree during a tournament. The allegations are said to involve no fewer than ten of the 18 Koreans on the LPGA Tour and the blame has been laid on over-zealous parents, rather than the player’s themselves.

Dottie Pepper, the American veteran player, likened these parents to "tennis dads", the notoriously pushy parents who have become such a feature of professional tennis.

"The fathers are very much overly involved," said one LPGA caddie. "But the father is so revered at home that the players have trouble resisting."

Young-Kwan Han, whose daughter Hee-Won Han has won twice this year and who is said not to be involved in allegations, claimed the Koreans were the victims of discrimination. "We shouldn’t be blamed for not speaking English," he said. Professional golf in the States is a notoriously insular world and Han may have a point. Yet Golf World is a serious publication and the mere fact that Votaw felt the need to call a meeting with the Korean players suggests its claims have some basis in truth.

If so, this would mean that over the last few months the reputation of two of the world’s biggest professional tours (the PGA and the LPGA) have been tainted with cheating allegations.

THE game has long prided itself on being the "cleanest" professional sport and it is, especially in comparison with football and rugby, where cheating by participants is not only routine but expected. This reputation was founded on heart-warming stories of Bobby Jones penalising himself for moving a ball - an offence only he could have known about - and has been sustained in the modern era by the likes of Hale Irwin, Greg Norman, Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els, all of whom have called themselves on rule infringements in recent times.

Irwin, famously, lost the 1983 Open at Royal Birkdale by a stroke to Tom Watson after having an air shot over a three-inch putt at the 14th hole in the third round. Irwin caught the ground and the putter went over the ball. The incident went unseen by spectators, but Irwin owned up immediately.

Despite these honourable examples, there has long been two schools of thought around the game when it comes to cheating. The dominant view is that the tradition of sportsmanship - embodied by Irwin, Norman and Co - continues unblemished. However, the minority view is that cheating, though far from widespread, is more prevalent than once-a-decade scandals like that involving Dunbar’s David Robertson (who was banned for 20 years after being accused of moving his ball during an Open qualifier).

The summer of 2003 may not mark a decisive shift away from the standards set by Bobby Jones but it is a reminder that there’s no room for complacency. After all, the latest allegations are not 19th hole tittle-tattle that has followed Gary Player all these years, they are public, on-the-record statements by Tiger Woods and Golf World - the best player and the best golf news magazine in the world.

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