Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 22, 2010

Two Great Weekends For Golf

For PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem and a Tour understandably eager to move past 24/7 coverage of Tiger Woods’ personal scandal, the past two weekends have been a godsend.

First there was Phil Mickelson winning The Masters for the third time, and doing so in dramatic fashion with a 6-iron shot on the 13th hole that instantly became a part of Masters lore. But even better for the “understandably eager to move past” crowd was the 36 second kiss Phil shared with his wife Amy behind the 18th green immediately after clinching his victory. Amy Mickelson continues her treatment for breast cancer, and her appearance in Augusta a week ago Sunday was the first time she had been present at a tournament this year. That was 36 seconds of true blue family values watched by millions.

Then on the heels of the kiss came Englishman Brian Davis kissing off a chance to score his first PGA Tour victory by calling a two stroke penalty on himself on the first playoff hole at last weekend’s Verizon Heritage Classic. While the audience for Davis’ selfless demonstration of integrity was tiny compared to The Masters, word of it quickly spread through the sports world. The fact that as it did so many reacted with astonishment and effusive praise for Davis is a reminder of just how different the ethics of golf are from most other professional sports.

The final ninety minutes of competition at the Heritage featured plenty of twists and turns despite the fact that by that time Davis and American Jim Furyk had separated themselves from the pack and were engaged in a two-man competition for the victory and the winner’s check of $1.026 million. After Furyk birdied the 12th hole to take a one-stroke lead, both players hit precise irons to the par 4 13th. Putting first, Davis made a ten-footer for birdie. When Furyk missed his own birdie chance from six feet, the two were once again tied. Then the American missed the green at the par 3 14th hole and was unable to save par. The 36-year old Davis, whose previous best showings in the U.S. were a pair of second place finishes, was just four holes from his first PGA Tour victory.

Unfortunately, the Englishman immediately began to play like someone who had just realized he was four holes from his first PGA Tour victory. He missed short par putts on both of the next two holes to fall back first into a tie, and then one behind Furyk. After both parred the 17th, they came to the beautiful and challenging par 4 closing hole at Harbour Town. Davis put his approach on the putting surface, but nearly twenty feet past the cup. When Furyk, who had missed the green with his approach, chipped close to the hole for a certain par the tournament seemed over. That was until Davis found the putting stroke that had so recently deserted him and rolled in the birdie to tie and force a playoff.

Back they went to the 18th tee for the first hole of sudden death. Both found the fairway with their drives. Then, from 163 yards, Davis pulled his approach ever so slightly. The ball hit on the fringe of the green and bounded left down onto the beach fronting Calibogue Sound. Needing to get up and down to continue the playoff, Davis blasted out onto the green. Everyone watching assumed that the tournament was again about to ride on his ability to make a long putt on the 18th hole. But Davis immediately called for PGA Tour rules official “Slugger” White and told him that as he began his backswing he thought he “might have seen something out of the corner of my eye.” Sure enough, a super-slow-motion television replay of the shot showed his club nicking a reed lying behind the ball.

The Rules of Golf dictate a two-stroke penalty for touching or moving a loose impediment in a hazard. Brian Davis was on the green in five, not three, and Jim Furyk was about to win his fifteenth PGA tournament.

At the other end of the sports spectrum is perhaps NASCAR, home to the old adage “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’.” In between that attitude and the game of golf lie all of the sports where umpires or referees render judgment and players argue vociferously that they made the tag, or stayed in-bounds. And then there is the only sport I know of in which players call penalties on themselves; and do so all the time, amateurs and pros alike. The only remarkable thing about Davis’s call was the situation in which it occurred. At more professional tournaments than not, on a Thursday afternoon or a Saturday morning, when the spotlight isn’t shining quite so brightly, a player will inform his fellow-competitor that he is adding a stroke or two to his own score for an accidental violation of one of the often complicated but always quite specific Rules.

But on a Sunday afternoon in the midst of a sudden death playoff, with an act that only one person thought he saw out of the corner of his eye, would every player on the Tour do what Brian Davis did? Of course not. The Tour’s marketing slogan is “these guys are good.” They are also human. I’ve no doubt that for some, perhaps especially for some seeking their first Tour victory, the thought that they might have seen something would have been quickly replaced by the thought that on the other hand, maybe they hadn’t. But I honestly believe that the vast majority of PGA Tour pros would have done exactly what Davis did. As he said afterwards, he “couldn’t have lived with himself” if he hadn’t called the penalty.

There is a reason why golf has long been called a gentleman’s game. Last Sunday on the 18th green below the Harbour Town lighthouse that reason was on full display. And for the second weekend in a row, Tim Finchem and everyone else who is understandably eager to move past you-know-what had to be grinning from ear to ear.

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