124th U.S. Open

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Cheaters on tour: ‘We know who they are’

From the archive (August 1996)

June 01, 2020

Editor’s note: In celebration of Golf Digest's 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature and journalism we’ve ever published. Catch up on earlier installments.

Among golfers, the worst thing you can say about a person is that he’s a cheater. We don’t mean unknowingly violating the Rules of Golf; we’re talking full-on, premeditated, reprehensible, first-degree cheating. Fortunately, it is rare.

The highest honor bestowed upon a golfer is not a green coat or a claret jug, it’s the Bob Jones Award for sportsmanship—the subtext for winning the award is a life of scrupulously playing by the rules. The most famous parable about Jones has nothing to do with his Grand Slam of championships won in 1930; it was in the 1925 U.S. Open he lost after calling a penalty on himself for causing his ball to inadvertently move when no one else saw it. Hailed for his honesty, Jones shook it off and said: “You might as well praise me for not robbing a bank.”

Tom Watson won the Bob Jones Award in 1987. Ben Crenshaw won it in 1991. Nick Price won it in 2005. Remember those names.

Rich or poor, low- or high-handicapper, the often-repeated consensus is that people who cheat in life don’t necessarily cheat at golf, but people who cheat at golf invariably cheat in life. The longtime Golf Digest columnist Tom Callahan considers this subject with the delicate touch of a surgeon. His scalpel’s cut is precise but leaves no blood on the table. —Jerry Tarde



Nothing has been said this year in golf or in sports that rings with a sharper truth than the five words: “We know who they are.”

To a leading question in a dinner setting, Tom Watson acknowledged in late winter that there were cheaters on the PGA Tour. “The game is a game of integrity,” he told an Australian interviewer in Melbourne, “but you are talking about money and you’re talking about livelihoods.”

Invited to name names, Watson said icily, “We know who they are.”

As if candor were calumny, Tom was slammed in the U.S. for once again sticking his blue nose where it wasn’t wanted. But the slammers lost momentum when Nick Price told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, “There are two [players] I know of for sure on tour who cheat and many others who I have come across in my travels. But once you do it, the guys all know who you are. Forever.”

While PGA patriots were extolling Jeff Sluman’s honesty at Bay Hill, Ben Crenshaw, of all gentle people, was saying, “Cheating is the absolute worst thing on tour, period. It’s like the people who play golf are one big family, and once you get cast out of the family, there’s no way to get back in.”

If that were literally so, Watson and Gary Player, Greg Norman and Mark McCumber, Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle, Seve Ballesteros and Paul Azinger—and all the other jousters who have tilted bloodily over honor—would never know peace in each other’s company. (A few never will.) But time is a funny thing.

Many U.S. Opens ago, a large Californian named Lon Hinkle seemed to hang over young Ballesteros like a gargoyle at every green. Asked about it afterward, Hinkle said in a measured tone: “He is a great young player, but he is going to have to learn to mark his ball like a professional.” Evidently, he did.

There’s an American star on tour who, long ago, in the crucible of the Q school, left a birdie putt on the lip and angrily whiffed the tap-in. With a face whiter than Gold Medal flour, he proceeded to the next tee and drove off as if it were still his honor.

His two playing partners were so stunned that they said nothing. He won his card by more than a shot; all three qualified. But, late that night, the other two got to talking, and drinking, and one went to the telephone. “I just want you to know,” he said in the alcoholic mist, “that I saw what happened out there today, and you’ll have to live with it the rest of your life.” Only one word came back in rebuttal, softly: “OK.”

Maybe a higher sense of obligation, some extra quality of effort, comes out of such a lonely start. Because, through the years, the player in question has gained the respect of the industry. But there are still whispers. Perhaps that’s what Watson, Price and Crenshaw mean.

On the amateur level, the club level, the muny level, “We know who they are” is the truest fact of golf, and maybe the only conforming law.

An old Kentucky newsman, Mike Barry, used to announce on the first tee, “You fellows go ahead and play whatever game you want. I’ll be playing golf.” In other words, he wouldn’t be hitting a mulligan at No. 1, bumping his ball in the fairway or moving his coin to avoid an abrasion (“teeing it up on the green,” as Jim Colbert calls that popular practice).

By the average hacker’s code, none of these qualify as cheating, but they set a tone. Barry, who almost never broke 100, had a theory about amateur cheaters that is passed along here not for moralizing purposes but as a practical advice.

Mike was convinced the cheaters weren’t after his $2; they just wanted to shoot 88 instead of 93. But their machinations actually cost them strokes, and not just because teeing up a ball to miss a 3-wood is a ridiculous alternative to an honest 8-iron.

Besides defaulting on their own confidence, they were throwing away golf’s most mysterious benefit, the springboard disguised as setback.

Jack Nicklaus will testify that he might never have won the 1986 Masters without a spike mark that popped up in his path at 12. That bogey meant more than any par to his round. It was what propelled him on.

Barry lived a rich life and died well, surrounded by family. In a bonus of timing, he narrowly outlived his archrival, the well-known governor, baseball commissioner and scoundrel, Happy Chandler.

When someone at Barry’s bedside recalled Ol’ Hap had “lied in state” at the Capitol, Mike came to for just an instant to say, “He lied in every state he ever went into.” Then he settled back to sleep the blissful sleep of those who always played the ball down.