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Breaking the Rules

Caught in the act: 13 cringeworthy stories of cheating on the golf course

By GolfDigest.com Editors Illustrations by Zohar Lazar
January 19, 2021

There is no worse designation for a golfer than cheater. Slow players, slicers, ball retriever-owners—they are all princes compared to the creative scorekeepers in our midst. It’s not an accusation we toss around lightly, and since we’re reluctant to sully reputations just for sport, we figured the next-best thing was to provide at least a taste of the type of cheating we’ve witnessed over the years: stories of eraser-smudged scorecards, of miraculously recovered tee shots, of balls somehow sitting pretty when everything around them is bad news. We like to think even those golfers who don’t adhere to the Rules of Golf word for word still operate by a general code of integrity. But when you hear some of these stories stacked on top of one another, it’s part enlightening, part infuriating.

• • •

There was a notorious ball-dropper among the gang of misfits I grew up playing money matches with back in the 1970s. The stakes were $20 a side and $5 skins. One day he hit his tee shot long and right into a weeping willow tree surrounded by high weeds. We looked and looked to no avail. Of course, a minute after I left the scene to play my shot, he yelled, I found it. “No, you didn’t,” I immediately shouted back. “Pick it up, you’re out of the hole.” The abruptness of my response must have caught him by surprise. He picked it up and walked to the next tee. We never spoke about it again. —Jerry Tarde

• • •

The most egregious attempt at cheating I ever witnessed was in a college tournament involving mostly Division III schools. Our group was a foursome, and because of the way scorecards were haphazardly exchanged on the first tee, I had the card of the guy who had mine. Normally, had it been a threesome or there was an official to distribute the cards, each golfer would keep the card of another so as to prevent this “mirrored” situation.

Somewhere on the front nine I make a double. On the next tee the guy asks me, pencil in hand, “5 back there?”

“No, I had a 6,” I said, probably in a tragic voice, as back then I used to get very sad when I made doubles.

“You sure? I thought it was 5. Anyways, I just think it’s such a nice day and that we should enjoy it. Let’s both play well today.”

I remember the physical sensation of being stunned. I couldn’t believe a person playing competitive golf at this level would make such a proposition. I looked him in the eye and he grinned. I went shot by shot through the hole to confirm my double, and we played on.

Walking off the last green but before we got to the scorer’s table, he suggested we compare cards to “quickly check.” He’d turned my 78 into a 74. He acted confused to see his 80 was still an 80. Though messily with eraser marks, the correct scores were turned in. On the bus ride back, another middling performance from our team, I wondered how we’d really finished. —Max Adler

• • •

In the early 1980s I played in a U.S. Open local qualifier at Burning Tree in Greenwich, Conn. I was paired with a well-known club pro who had played in multiple U.S. Opens and PGA Championships. We played as a twosome and had a caddie who, for some reason, was carrying double. On the 10th hole, the pro snap-hooked one while I was in the right rough. The caddie went to the pro’s ball first and when he got to me, I asked What’s he got? The caddie replied that he was between rocks and had to take a drop.

Next thing you know the ball comes flying out of the ditch and I ask the pro what he lies. “Two,” came the reply, which set the caddie off. “No f*&$ing way!” he instantly said. “I’m a 3-handicap and know when a ball can be played and that couldn’t.”

As an amateur in my young 20s and relatively new to highly competitive golf, I didn’t know what to do. So when I got to the scorer’s tent, I relayed the story and was told to sign the card. I did, but the afternoon round was very awkward. The pro made it through the qualifier, but a day later I got a call from the Met Section asking me to come in as officials had heard there had been an issue. I relayed the story—with the pro sitting right there—and finished with, “I didn’t see it, but the caddie had no reason to lie. If anything, with a player in the hunt he was probably in line for a bigger tip if his player makes it.”

The end result was they didn’t feel they could do anything, and the pro played in Sectional Qualifying. The kick in the butt was as we were leaving, he said “Call me anytime if you want to play at my club.” —E. Michael Johnson

• • •

About five years ago I was playing in an invitational event with 40 two-man teams. It was three days of stroke play. All the players were sub-5 handicaps, and there were lots of out-of-town teams.

On Day 1, my friends played with a two-man team from Tulsa, Okla. My friends played well. At lunch after the round they mentioned how these guys seemed to have a strange strategy. One guy would hit his approach shot then ride up to the green and tell the next guy how to play his shot … while standing on the green. Everyone thought that was very odd, so we mentioned it to the pro. The pro immediately wondered if they might be cheating. So he set a trap the next day.

On Day 2, he had them tee off on the 17th hole in a shotgun format. When the group came up 18 by the clubhouse all the employees hid out of site, however they had several eyes on the 18th green. Sure enough, one of the guys hits his approach shot to the green, and he then rode up to the green leaving his partner in the fairway prior to the partner hitting his approach shot. Once at the green, the first player picked up his ball without a mark and then moved his mark 10 feet closer to the hole. They repeated the same strategy when his partner hit up. The club employees caught the guys, who admitted to cheating. They were escorted immediately from the property never to be welcomed back. The club pro called their club in Tulsa, where the two cheaters we asked to leave. —Golf Digest panelist

• • •

Playing in a college event at West Point years ago, I got paired with a top player from a northeast school with a great golf team. The guy was slumming it in our group, which I kidded about with the other member of our threesome. The good player hardly said a word to us; in fact he walked most of the holes with earphones on. Classy.

Of course, he played beautifully. In tough conditions, he was maybe a couple over through 16 holes. On our 17th, a long par 5, he pushed his tee shot into long rough. To my amazement, he hacked away a few times before getting his ball back to the fairway. Wedge on, three-putt. Walking off the green, I said something like, “Tough one, man. What did you end up with there?”

“Double,” was his response. Now I saw every shot with my own eyes, mostly because I couldn’t believe it was happening. His double was actually a 9.

He parred the 18th hole with two beauties and a routine two-putt, and we all shook hands and headed for the scorer’s table. When he saw I marked him for a 9 on 17, he flipped out. He flung his card into the air, chucked the pencil and stormed away from the table. But he didn’t protest. With my pulse pounding, I went through each shot for the official, who clearly knew the kid and was also amazed.

The official followed him, and after a few long minutes sitting there, I went to find my team. We later saw his score posted—still a damn good one—meaning he had signed the card with the 9.

I never saw the guy again. He’s probably folding shirts in a golf shop somewhere. Still a jerk. —Peter Morrice

• • •

My college team was on our spring-break trip, competing in an event at a small school down south. My teammate had beat me out for the final team spot, so I played as an individual. I finished my round in the morning and spent the afternoon with my coach watching the five guys who were counting for the team. On the 10th tee, there was a line of shrubs separating the tee from the cart path, where we were sitting. One of my teammates ran to the clubhouse to grab his lunch while the other two guys in the group teed off. They then went to use the restroom and grab their lunch while my teammate teed off. After hitting, and completely unaware that we were sitting 15 feet away, my teammate went into his competitor’s bag, grabbed his scorecard and changed the score on one of the holes on the front nine. My coach and I looked at each other, incredulous as to what we just witnessed. Knowing the player whose bag my teammate reached into, I casually walked up the fairway with the group and asked the kid if I could see my teammate’s scorecard. Sure enough, there was a 4 written down on a hole where there clearly had been a 5 originally. We decided not to confront my teammate, but wait and see if he would keep the changed score. He knew something was up and corrected the error at the scorer’s table, but I grabbed him right afterwards and had a talk with him. Long story short, he never played for our team again and transferred at the end of the semester. —Golf Digest panelist

• • •

It was a one-day member-guest with a shotgun start, about a hundred years ago. One of the guests in the foursome, a last-minute substitute, showed up when we were on the first green, but his host suggested he be allowed to play the hole and catch up. When the hole was finished and his host needed to jot in his guest’s handicap, he announced himself as a 16. On about the fourth hole, I noticed the same guy had two 3-woods in his bag, same make and model. That oddity prompted me to count his clubs. He had 16 in there. Later in the round, when I retrieved the guy’s ball from the cup, I noticed it was a brand called Robin Hood, marketed through newspaper advertisements and available only through mail order. It was smaller than the regulation 1.68-inch ball and strictly illegal. (It was purported to produce incredible distance but actually was a terrible ball.) I’d never seen a golfer use one, even out of curiosity. He wasn’t much of a player, and neither was his host. They didn’t win anything. But when a guy from the guest’s same club whispered at the conclusion he wasn’t a 16-handicapper but a 13, I did a little reflecting. It occurred to me that by (a) using a false handicap; (b) teeing off late; (c) having more than 14 clubs; and (d) using the goofy, illegal ball, the guy was destined for four rules violations before he even hit a shot. That has to be some kind of record. —Guy Yocom

• • •

I heard this anecdote recently: Years ago in a member-guest at a pretty well-known New York club, a guest couldn’t find his tee shot on a blind par-3 hole. The foursome looked everywhere for the ball, finally finding something in the high grass. “Yep, that’s mine,” the guy proclaimed. He managed to hack his ball out, then chip to 40 feet, lying 3. Someone in the group took out the pin and, sure enough, the guy’s actual tee shot was in the bottom of the cup. A hole-in-one! Needless to say, the guy didn’t get invited back. —Golf Digest panelist

• • •

I was competing in a junior tournament, playing in a foursome. One of the players hit his ball to the right in the woods. We offered to help find it, but he quickly told us that he already did. Although we could not see him, his next shot rather loudly hit a tree. From there he played out to the fairway, on the green and two-putted. When the player keeping his scorecard asked what he made, our woodsman said 6. The player asked if he had lost a ball in the woods. He told him no, and asked why would you think that. The guy paused and said, “I guess you hit that tree so hard that the ball changed colors. Sorry for questioning your honesty.” Sure enough, the guy had an orange ball on the tee, but finished with a white one. How he thought we wouldn’t notice that is beyond me. —Golf Digest panelist

• • •

About 10 years ago I joined a new club. I had finally finished the membership process and the next Saturday was a fine May day, 70 degrees with a gentle breeze. I showed up at the club and was paired with a member I didn’t know. I noticed that he kept applying lip balm before each tee shot, putting the stick back into his pocket each time without the cap. I figured that he just lost it. We had a friendly match, with a little money at stake, and I wound up owing him a few dollars at the end; figured it was the cost of doing business. He invited me to play the next week, and the weather was similarly beautiful. He continued to apply more chapstick than I thought humanly possible, and once again had “lost” the cap. Furthermore, he seemed to fiddle around a lot with his pocket before taking his ball out and teeing it up. I eventually asked another member about the guy, and was told I was playing with the “Lip Bomber.” That was the nickname he’d gotten from other members (unbeknownst to him) since due to his reputation for spreading the stuff on his ball before he teed it up. Hadn’t seen that before or since. —Golf Digest panelist

• • •

In a summer event I was in a foursome featuring a notorious cheat who we’ll call Rick. Actually, that’s his real name, and I’m leaving it in because he was such a rat. Putting his mark in front of the ball, patting down rough, fudging high scores, the works. I always figured these stories were fabricated—teenagers are prone to such tales, after all—but discovered that afternoon they were all too real.

On the eighth hole, our bastard in question blows his drive right of right, the ball bouncing into the heather. While I and the other guys in the group are looking for his ball, we hear a “Woooosh” from 50 yards up as Rick miraculously finds his ball and, wouldn’t you know it, it was in a perfect lie to make a run at the green. No, “Hey guys, I got it.” A hit-’n-run if there ever was one.

Perhaps it was a call to justice—or more likely, that I was having a pretty bad round myself. I decided, let’s have some fun and yelled, “You just hit the wrong ball, it’s back here!” With a look on his face that conveyed his hand had been caught in the cookie jar, he began complaining that the sun was too bright and that he shouldn’t be penalized for not being able to identify his ball. No defense or rebuttal, immediately into excuse. I responded, “Actually, I didn’t find your ball. We just knew you didn’t either.” He didn’t say a word, finished the hole with the dropped ball and walked off.

The scary part? This dude is now a lawyer. —Joel Beall

• • •

While playing a college match in the early 1960s (sorry to date myself) my opponent marked his ball with a silver dollar only to continue remarking it several more times, each time, in my estimation moving it closer to the hole. He did this on every hole. At one point he asked me on one hole, Who is away? My response was, It depends on how many more times you intend to mark your ball. He got the point, and it didn’t occur again. —Golf Digest panelist

• • •

A few years back I was caddieing for someone in a qualifier for our state open. Turns out he would miss the cut by a few shots, but had he snuck in by one, a situation early on our back nine would have haunted me for some time. With his ball in an impossible spot to recover from, I pleaded with him to take an unplayable, which probably would have been a crushing blow to his still slim hopes of qualifying. Instead, he wanted to chop it out. After taking the club back a few times to see if he had a swing, he took his hack and completely missed the ball, only to miraculously get it out on his second attempt. As we walked to the ball I told him that was unreal, but that it sucks it was his second shot. “That was a practice swing,” he claimed. It was most certainly not, but I was the only one who saw it, and he went on with his round without his competitors questioning him. Does this make me an accessory to cheating? Don’t answer that. —Christopher Powers