Maybe the comparison isn't fair. The games have different histories and traditions, different energies and rhythms, and the competition occurs at wildly different paces. Of course, one is the most unified of team games on the simplest and most one-dimensional of playing fields, the other a lonely pursuit across uncertain and uneven terrain, vast, inscrutable and purposely unfair. One is loud and physical and full of aggression and confrontation. The other seems as quiet as a walk in a forest, its struggles almost exclusively internal and the interaction between opponents is nearly always overwhelmingly cordial.
Each in their element captures the beauty of coordination and grace, each with athletes so precisely gifted their talents gloss over the innate and unendingly precise difficulty of their tasks.
But yesterday in the smallest of incidents, one on its biggest stage revealed itself to be wrapped inextricably in fraud and deception. And the other, in no less grand a stage, quietly showed how at its best and most common it is a game that simply cannot exist in a lie. In short, soccer is a game where you're rewarded for deceiving the referee. Golf is a game where you call the referee over to penalize yourself.
With his phantom flop, Brazil's Fred (in yellow) got away with bending the rules
rather than upholding them. (Getty Images)
As the world fixes its collective and rabid gaze on all of Brazil and the World Cup, soccer's defining event, a much smaller section of the global sports mind turns to a small village in the empty middle of North Carolina for one of golf's most demanding championships.
Maybe it is too easy to apply broad strokes to small moments, but each of yesterday's small moments seemed too revealing to overlook.
Early Thursday afternoon at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, current U.S. Amateur champion and outclassed underdog Matthew Fitzpatrick found himself holding his own against the world's best through his first 16 holes. On the eighth hole, the 19-year-old addressed the ball and then saw it move as he put his club down. He told ESPN's Bob Harig, "Me and [caddie Lorne] Duncan both saw it move. And I looked at Duncan and I was like, whoops, what do I do? And he said call the referee over. So I called him over just to confirm that I replace the ball rather than play it from where it finished."
There was no grand gesture at the time, no rush of applause from the crowd gathered to watch Fitzpatrick play with the reigning U.S. and British Open champions, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson. Indeed, few actually knew what was happening beyond Fitzpatrick and the referee. Fitzpatrick called the penalty, and then went about the business of playing the game, making a difficult eight-footer for what otherwise would have been a par but because of his honesty turned into a bogey. For those in golf, the act was no more extraordinary than replacing a divot. Because that is the game.
In soccer, though, the game is different. In Brazil's opening-round match, it was struggling against mammoth underdog Croatia. Well into the second half, Brazil's Fred fell to the ground as if struck by an assassin's bullet, earning a penalty kick for his squad that gave the home country the lead. Trouble was, Fred had barely been touched. Was it a penalty? With the call on ESPN were Ian Darke and Steve McManaman, and their reaction was as swift as it was damning:
McManaman: "No, no, no, no, no, no, no. ..."
Darke: "Never in a million years. That is a massive favor that the referee Nishimura has given to Brazil."
Seconds later, Darke went on to note, "...Fred doesn't care..."
Of course he doesn't. Flopping is as much a part of soccer as cleats and fans who sing in unison and players who go only by one name. It isn't merely accepted, it's encouraged because winning the game is a by-any-means-necessary sort of pursuit. That is, frankly, the nature of most games, where the rules are to be navigated and bent to your will. Cheating in soccer, like so many other team sports, is often shrouded in euphemisms like guile or gamesmanship. In golf, cheating is, well, cheating.
In golf, the rules are the house you live in, or more precisely the house you are a guest in, structured, permanent, something to be taken care of. Golf isn't, of course, "lily-white," as one fellow traveler mentioned to me last night. There are plenty of stories of players who perhaps knowingly, perhaps recklessly, did not adhere to the game's purest tenets. But these stories are so far from the norm and their violators so anathema that their existence only further instills the belief that the game is intensely, almost supernaturally honest. It is unique in that regard.
It was only a week ago that one U.S. Open qualifier who had achieved his dream of playing in the national championship disqualified himself before he even got to Pinehurst. Jason Millard didn't feel right about a possible rules violation he had failed to call on himself in his sectional qualifier. So he called up the USGA and said, in essence, someone should take my place, I don't deserve this. He told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "There was something in my heart, telling me this didn't feel right."
I don't see these words ever coming from Brazil's Fred, or from any other soccer player in a similar situation. Dispute the referee's blown call in his favor? Of course not. In fact, Fred seemed to be offering prayers of thanks to some kind of soccer god as the kick was awarded. Honest effort is part of soccer, but honesty? That's not what the game is.
Somewhere last night in Brazil, there was relief and joy, undoubtedly even a measure of pride in Fred's ability to dupe the referee. For Matthew Fitzpatrick, playing golf in Pinehurst, there's probably not a moment's thought about the one-stroke penalty. Not a concern about what other options he had. For Fitzpatrick, the ball's moving did not spur him to create some excuse, some obfuscation or calculated deceit.
Fitzpatrick's action off the eighth green at Pinehurst No. 2, correcting something only he could have seen, doesn't make him a hero. It just makes him a golfer. And that makes all the difference.Follow @MikeStachura