THE rather odd but ultimately well-meaning actions of Sergio Garcia – where the Spaniard conceded a 20-foot putt to an opponent because he felt bad about the length of time a ruling had taken on the previous hole – only emphasised yet again how golf leads the way when it comes to sportsmanship.
Unlike, say, rugby and football – where the primary aim of the players seems to be to cheat as much as possible from first whistle to last – the history of the Royal and Ancient game is littered with heart-warming incidents that clearly illustrate the original Corinthian spirit on which it was founded.
Way back in 1925, the game’s greatest-ever amateur, Bobby Jones, effectively lost the US Open title when he called a one-shot penalty on himself after his ball moved slightly at address. No one but Jones saw the supposed infraction and, when he was later lauded for his action, he famously replied: “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.”
More recently, the game’s greatest-ever professional, Jack Nicklaus, conceded a two-and-a-half-foot putt to Tony Jacklin on the 18th green at Royal Birkdale during the 1969 Ryder Cup matches. By doing so, the Golden Bear guaranteed that the contest would end in an iconic draw. And, in the process, he ensured himself a permanent place in golf’s unofficial sporting Hall of Fame. Even if his non-playing skipper that week, Sam “win at all costs” Snead, was less than impressed.
Still, at least in the mind of this observer, those notable gestures are no more memorable than the spontaneous action of Seve Ballesteros on the 18th green at Augusta National during the 1978 Masters. When the Spaniard’s playing partner, Gary Player, holed a 12-foot putt for a birdie, a back nine of 30 and a round of 64 that would later see him victorious by one shot, Seve ran across the putting surface and enveloped his companion in a huge and obviously heartfelt bear hug. As genuine acknowledgements of excellence in a fellow competitor go, this one has to be at least top-three of all-time.
Perhaps even more touching is the fact that such behaviour was nothing new for the sadly departed five-time major champion. Despite what you may have heard about Seve and his supposed propensity for gamesmanship, for many on the European Tour, he epitomised everything that is good about the game.
“A few years ago, I was drawn with Seve in the first two rounds of the European Masters in Switzerland,” says former US Senior Open and PGA champion Roger Chapman. “There was a huge crowd and he was the centre of attention as usual.
“Anyway, with maybe six holes to go, I was a couple of shots outside the cut-line. I wasn’t playing that well and my head was a bit down. At which point Seve walked over and said to me: ‘Roger, why you no try?’
“‘I am trying,’ I replied. ‘But you no try very hard,’ he said with a smile. ‘Make a couple of birdies and you never know. On this course you can make birdie on every hole.’
“Four holes later, I had made an eagle and a couple of birdies. In the end, I comfortably made the cut. And, after I holed out on the 18th, there was Seve standing at the back of the green pumping his fist. I will never forget that moment. For me, it summed up what real sport is about. And it said so much about his attitude to golf. I still shake my head that someone like him could be so thoughtful and genuine.”
Ah, but it isn’t always so. Not even in golf. Sadly, the game has a darker side, one that has also spawned some depressingly dodgy incidents over the years. In 1983, the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth was marred when, during a match with Graham Marsh, Nick Faldo’s ball was clearly thrown back on to the 16th green. With the game all-square, Faldo went on to win the hole when the Australian three-putted.
Roundly criticised both at the time and later for his failure to offer his opponent a half, Faldo was accosted by a spectator en route to the next tee. It was, as the late Peter Dobereiner wrote, “almost the first recorded instance of the ‘fan hitting the shit’.”
Then there is the infamous 1999 Ryder Cup matches at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Never mind the disgraceful and disgusting treatment meted out to European No.1 Colin Montgomerie by a boozed-up crowd of xenophobic morons, the biennial encounter is best/worst remembered for the stampede of American players across the 17th green in the immediate aftermath of Justin Leonard’s 40-foot putt for birdie.
Unfortunately, Leonard’s opponent, Jose Maria Olazabal, still had a putt to halve the hole, a fact momentarily forgotten by the US squad. And it is there that the American captain, Ben Crenshaw – ironically one of the most sporting of competitors – missed his opportunity. Had the two-time Masters champion marched across the putting surface to pick up Olazabal’s marker and so concede his putt, one of golf’s ugliest moments would have been immediately transformed into one of its greatest. But he did not, a fact he sorely regrets to this day.
Crenshaw’s compatriot, Bob Goalby, missed a similar opportunity at the 1968 Masters. When the birdie made by Roberto de Vicenzo at the 71st hole was transformed into a par by an administrative error, Goalby was declared the winner by a single shot over the broken-hearted Argentine. But what the new “champion” should have done is refuse to accept a decision that had no basis in reality and insist on a play-off the next day.
Think about it. Twenty-four hours later there were two possibilities. Either Goalby was going to be hailed as Masters champion and “sportsman of the century”, or simply “sportsman of the century”. And, in golf, as we have seen, that really would have meant something.
Going forward, Sergio and all the rest would perhaps do well to consider what might euphemistically be labelled “the Australian model”. Generally speaking, it is a fact that our Antipodean cousins play their sports, including golf, in a way that is an example to all.
“The prevailing Aussie attitude of ‘play hard and have a beer after’ is a legacy of legends like tennis players Lew Hoad, John Newcombe and Roy Emerson, cricketers like Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and the Chappell brothers and golfers like Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Bob Shearer and Jack Newton,” says former European Tour player, Mike Clayton, now a successful course designer in partnership with former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.
“Australians detest bad sports – the diving in European football is seen as a joke and, if anybody tried it here, they would be widely reviled. Which is not to say there are not bad sports here – plenty presumably take, and have taken, performance-enhancing drugs. But it remains true that, while we take sport seriously, once the game is done it is about relationships, friendships and the way you play.”
Amen to that.