John Huggan: The elephant in the locker room

For a game that has for so long prided itself on the supposedly unimpeachable integrity of its participants, golf's establishment has always had a strange and somewhat ironic relationship with rules.

On one hand, innocent bunglers are gleefully swooped upon and penalised as if they have committed capital crimes; on the other, blatant and well-known cheats are indulged, or at least not identified as such. It is a curious and perverse mix indeed.

There is any number of examples where players have fallen foul of golf's rulebook despite not deriving any advantage from their inadvertent error. Take former Masters champion Ian Woosnam and that extra driver found in his bag on the second tee of the final round at the 2001 Open Championship. Does anyone on the planet seriously believe that the wee Welshman had any intention of using that 15th club? Of course not. Yet that obvious fact meant nothing as he was slapped with a two-shot penalty. The game of golf may consider the former Masters champion an upstanding citizen, but the rules of golf did not.

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Then there is Mark Roe and that infamous failure to swap cards with his playing companion before, during or after the third round of the 2003 Open Championship at Royal St George's. Despite the fact that Roe's score was recorded by the marker following his pairing and that literally millions of television viewers watched him shoot 68, he was disqualified because "Jesper Parnevik" was the name at the top of his scorecard. It remains unclear what possible edge either man could have gained from such a move. No matter, out they had to go.

One could go on and on and on. The 1968 Masters and the '4' that should have been a '3' on Roberto de Vicenzo's final round card comes immediately to mind. So does runaway third round leader Padraig Harrington's disqualification from the 2001 British Masters at the Belfry; the accountancy graduate's scores were fine, but he had committed the apparently heinous crime of signing the wrong card two days previously. And earlier this year LPGA professional Juli Inkster was hit with a penalty during a mid-round delay when she absent-mindedly swung a club to which she had briefly attached one of those heavy "doughnut" training aids. What nonsense, all of it.

Still, it is, one supposes, just about possible to justify all of the above and so much more by trotting out those old chestnuts about "rules being rules" and following "the letter of the law" which is "the same for everyone". And many do, not least those charged with the admittedly thankless task of administering the game's increasingly complicated regulations. But here's the thing. Those same sticklers rarely, if ever, follow through when it comes to golf's dirtiest little secret: deliberate cheating.

You may not want to hear this, but golf at every level is rife with cheating. Well, OK, rife may be too strong a word. But it's out there, at every level of the game up to and including the professional level, where the temptation to transgress is obviously increased by the often huge financial rewards available.

You'll never read the names of those involved though. Officialdom doesn't want you to know who they are (and the legal implications of publicly exposing the culprits don't help either). Some, in fact, are really quite famous. One multiple major champion, by way of example, is a notorious cheat and the subject of any number of head-shaking locker room tales. Ryder Cup players are not immune either. At least one is tainted forever by his serial cheating. And there are others, many of whom have won events through the most dubious of methods.

Every year it goes on and on, right up to the present day. During this past season on the European Tour there was at least one instance where a pro, outraged by the behaviour of his playing companion, refused to sign that fellow competitor's card. Not that anything came of it. In such instances, tour officials invariably take it upon themselves to attest the disputed numbers.

And that's the problem. Why is it that the innocent seem to be persecuted to the nth degree by the rules while the guilty are protected? The answer, of course, is that - at least at the highest level - image is everything. The last thing any professional tour wants is a cheating scandal, one that may affect their ability to attract sponsorship. For them, the preferred option is not to cut off the problem but to maintain the misconception that the game is whiter-than-white.

For years, one particular player - a huge star in his homeland - has been something of a joke when it comes to the rules. Playing abroad - something he did only rarely - his drives were of above average length but hardly spectacular. At home, he was the longest man out there. Conclusion? At home his ball was "hot" and surely illegal, which is perhaps why his bag was never seen without a caddie/guard standing beside it.

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Just last year, video evidence showed American Kenny Perry during a play-off for a PGA Tour event in Phoenix. Before Perry placed his club behind the ball at address, maybe the top third of the ball was visible in semi-rough. Seconds later - the camera never moved - when Perry moved away to assess his options, more than half the ball was in plain view. Deliberate or not, it was a clear contravention of the rule that says a player cannot improve his lie. But no action was taken against Perry, either at the time or retrospectively. To do so would, of course, have meant scarring the reputation of both the player and the pro game - a big no-no.

Right now, a ticking bomb exists on the LPGA Tour, where a number of players from the same country have already been accused of activities outside golfing law. Chances are the explosion will never be heard though. For the tour, identifying and punishing the miscreants would be commercial suicide, especially in these tough economic times. So the cheating, some of which has already been shown on You Tube, will likely as not continue unabated.

In defence of the authorities, it must be added that, in many instances, it comes down to one player's word against another's. But things are not helped when - as is the case on the European Tour - a player and his caddie count as one voice in a legal sense. Two accusers against one accused are thus reduced to parity.

Which brings us, inexorably, to the current case of Elliot Saltman, who has been accused - perhaps significantly by both playing partners - of consistent improper marking of his ball during a Challenge Tour event in Russia. The young Scot, left, clearly has talent in abundance, as his qualification for the 2011 European Tour shows. And, for his sake at least, it is to be hoped that the charges prove groundless.

Perhaps only one thing is for sure: Saltman will have the implicit backing of the tour in any fight to prove his innocence. But heaven forbid he unthinkingly falls foul of the rules in future; if he does, they'll nail him every time.