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Where Do You Fall On Golf's Honesty Meter?

We asked 15 questions about the rules, and the results might surprise you. (Hint: Rule-breakers are more likely to think that others are cheating, too, and honest people have more faith that playing partners are doing the right thing)

March 2012

Next to being a great player, the other way a golfer can be remembered forever is as a cheater. When it comes to immortality in your club's grillroom, a reputation for improving one's lie is as lasting as getting your name on the board. Among friends, the Rules of Golf are rarely followed with the same exactitude as pros competing for prize money. Still, rules are rules. What must the casual player do (and not do) to avoid earning that ignominious label?

To find out, we devised a survey with the help of two research psychologists, Dr. Dan Sachau of Minnesota State University and Luke Simmering, a Ph.D. student at Louisiana Tech University. The intent of the survey was to gain a sense of which rules are considered most sacrosanct in everyday play. But we learned much more from the 2,015 avid golfers who responded.

It isn't a shock that most golfers say they are honest; in 10 of our 15 situations, the majority say they never bend the rule in question.

However, most interesting is the high rate (89 to 99 percent across all scenarios) that occasional rule-breakers believe most other golfers also break the rule. "This is what psychologists refer to as a 'false-consensus bias,' or the tendency of people to overestimate the extent to which others agree with them," Sachau says. "This is why honesty tests work. People who break the rules think most people do, too, so it's no big deal to admit it." Conversely, golfers who say they follow the rules profess similar faith in others.

As you read how your peers responded to the 15 fishy situations, naturally you'll think, What would I do? But remember, it's also what others think you would do that establishes your legacy in this game of honor.

1. At the end of the round, you see your playing partner has marked you down for a score one stroke lower than you actually shot. Do you fail to point out the error and accept the lower score?
Never: 92%
Under some circumstances: 8%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 89%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 41%

2. Your ball is in the rough. You take a full swing intending to hit the ball but miss it completely. You did not touch any part of the ball, nor did you change the ball's position. Would you pretend the stroke was a practice swing and not count it?
Never: 87%
Under some circumstances: 13%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 97%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 54%

3. You're chipping and accidentally double-hit the ball. Do you count this as only one stroke?
Never: 82%
Under some circumstances: 18%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 98%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 47%

4. You play a shot from the deep rough. When you reach the green, you realize that you played the wrong ball. Do you score the hole as if you'd played the correct ball? Never: 74%
Under some circumstances: 26%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 99%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 54%

5. You hit your drive down the center of the fairway, but it settles in an old divot hole. Someone should have filled the hole but failed to do so. Do you move the ball out of the hole?
Never: 66%
Under some circumstances: 34%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 98%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 60%

6. You're preparing to hit out of a bunker but accidentally ground your club in the sand. No one noticed. Do you play the shot without taking a penalty?
Never: 66%
Under some circumstances: 34%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 98%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 62%

7. You reach the green and mark your ball with a coin. There's a spike mark directly in front of your coin. Do you replace your ball a little to the side of the coin (less than an inch) to avoid the spike mark?
Never: 62%
Under some circumstances: 38%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 99%.
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 54%.

8. Your putt comes up a foot short of the hole. You step carefully around the ball markers of the other members of your group and take an awkward stance to avoid standing in anyone's line. You make a quick stroke and miss what would normally be an easy tap-in. Would you count the putt as if you made it?
Never: 59%
Under some circumstances: 41%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 98%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 57%

9. Your playing partners start talking while you're hitting. You're distracted by the conversation and shank your shot. They apologize and encourage you to take a mulligan. Do you take the mulligan?
Never: 56%
Under some circumstances: 44%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 97%.
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 68%.

10. It's an autumn day, and the course is littered with leaves. You slice a tee shot, and the odds are 50-50 whether the ball stayed in the rough or bounded into the woods. You can't find your ball. Do you invoke the "leaf rule" and take a drop in the rough without penalty?
Never: 52%
Under some: circumstances: 48%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 99%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 52%

11. Your ball is in the woods. There is a gap in the trees to hit an escape shot, but your ball is nestled against a small rock. Not only could the rock negatively affect your shot, it might also damage your wrists and club. Do you move your ball or the rock without penalty?
Never: 45%
Under some circumstances: 55%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 99%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 53%

12. Your ball comes to rest in the fairway on a patch of mud. This area should be marked as ground under repair, but there are no markings indicating it is. Do you move your ball to a healthier patch of fairway without penalty?
Never: 42%
Under some circumstances: 58%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 99%.
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 58%.

13. You're running late and skip warming up at the range. On the first tee, you hit a terrible drive, and your playing partners offer you a mulligan. Do you take it? Never: 36%
Under some circumstances: 64%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 99%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 65%

14. You have a short putt just outside the usual "gimme" range of your playing group. As you're about to make your stroke a player in your foursome says, "That's good." You continue your stroke but miss the putt. Do you score it as if you made it? Never: 32% Under some circumstances: 68%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 99%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 60%

15. A friend lets you try out a new hybrid on the range, but you forget to remove it from your bag. Midway through your round you realize you're carrying 15 clubs. No one in your group has noticed. Do you stay silent and keep playing without assessing the proper amount of penalty strokes?
Never: 29%
Under some circumstances: 71%

Rule-breakers who think most people break the rule: 99%
Rule followers who think most people break the rule: 56%

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