Forgive Me My Sins

August 08, 2010

It was Bob Jones, who when given credit for calling a penalty on himself, said: "You might as well praise me for not robbing an ATM."

That might not be exactly right, but versions of that quote have been recited by every golf commentator from Henry Longhurst to Kelly Tilghman, not to mention by about a third of the people I've played golf with. It's our Sermon on the Mount. Which is fine, I suppose. It's just that "we call penalties on ourselves" has become an excuse for condescension toward other sports on the subject of what is and is not rule-breaking. Oh, we get how it works: In your sport, if you don't get caught, you're OK. We just don't do it that way in our sport. At the member-member dinner, homilies might start with Jones' quote but work into a tearful quotation of Shivas Irons. We are at times so holier than thou.

Which is why now might be a good time to mute the bagpipes, all ye Game of Honor apostles. This story is about sinners.

When we asked readers a couple of months ago to confess their worst secrets, we expected nothing much. Maybe a whimpery: "My ball moved when I slipped a leaf out from under it, and I'm not sure if it oscillated or really changed position, but I feel so guilty because I went on to win the fourth flight." We didn't get that. What we got was akin to looting an ATM: not just amusing, venial sins, but some nearly unforgivable mortal ones. Real violations. Golfers who move balls -- other people's -- into hazards. Golfers who knowingly take credit for lower scores than they shot. Golfers who smile and accept trophies (or money) that they didn't earn. Golfers!

When you read these confessions (below is a sample of what we received), some of you will offer a quick te absolvo and proceed to the McLean tip. Some will delight in the flaws of your fellow man. Others will condemn these folks and say deceiving a fellow golfer to your advantage violates the spirit of the game. But some of our favorite match-play competitors, like Seve Ballesteros, are the ones who practiced it with a twinkle in their eye.

It might be, as Peter Dobereiner wrote in Golf Digest about the Tom Watson-Gary Player 1983 Skins Game dispute, a matter of whether you see the rules as the Ten Commandments (Watson) or the Bill of Rights (Player). Most of us realize that both documents require a bit of social interpretation. What's given a pass in a weekend match might not fly at an invitational. It's not enough to know the rules; you have to navigate the gray areas, too.

Still, the stories below are about as gray as a red stake. I wondered why the folks who played with these people didn't confront them. Maybe because you feel like a lug when you do that. When I saw an opponent repeatedly replacing his marked ball closer to the hole, for example, I said, "Do that again, and I'll put this putter in your skull," and I didn't mind feeling like a lug. Was I too harsh?

We pray these confessors find forgiveness, feel free of their burdens and never enter a tournament we play in.

But we acknowledge that they have suffered great guilt.

Which leads me to a New Year's Day sermon years ago in Michigan. Father Koenig, who had the best pace-of-mass in Sacred Heart parish, gave the sermon at a brief service, the last of the day, attended by a hungover crowd that filled the church. His message, in its entirety, was:

"Well, was it worth it?"


While playing in a high school regional tournament, I made a long putt for a bogey 5. As I walked to the next tee, a competitor congratulated me on my "par-saving" putt. I didn't say anything, wrote down the incorrect score and played out my round. I shot 76 to make a playoff for the individual title, which I won on the first hole with a par. I've never been proud of that victory. I cheated because I was young, dumb and got caught up in the moment. I'm sorry to the guy whose title I stole. I wish I could give it back. I would've been proud to have shot 77 to finish second. Instead, for 22 years I've been ashamed because I cheated.

I always mark my ball on the green just behind it. Then, when replacing the ball, I place it down one inch in front of the mark. This shortens my putt by one whole inch. Of course, it hasn't seemed to improve my 19-handicap.

Am I forgiven?

As a reverend I welcome the opportunity to confess my golf sins and at least one in particular. About eight years ago I was caddieing for a pro-am group that included Bob Uecker, the legendary baseball announcer. It happened to be Uecker's birthday, and when we came to the last hole, he hit his approach to a par 4 into the desert. I went ahead and found it under a scrubby bush, and with only slight hesitation, I wedged it out with my foot and thought Happy Birthday, Bob! I then called him over, and he chipped the ball onto the green and two-putted for what he thought was a bogey. He was unaware of my transgression, and though we weren't in contention, it was still a breach of the rules.

I welcome hearing words of absolution through this column, and I trust Mr. Uecker and God will forgive me, too!

I recently played a match against this guy who's a rival of mine. We're similar in ability, and we had a $100 bet going. On 18 we were all square and both hit good drives in front of a pond. My opponent was slow to get to our drives. Both of us were safe but close to the water. I saw he wasn't looking, so I kicked his ball into the water. When he got there, I said his ball had gone in. He made double bogey, and I made par to win the match and $100.

My freshman year of high school I played in our district championship. On 18, I hit my tee shot into the woods. When I got to where I saw my ball enter, I couldn't find it but did find another ball. So I played the one I found as if it were mine. I hit it on the green and made birdie, and our team qualified for the state tournament by one stroke. I felt terrible. If I could do it over, I'd go back and take the stroke-and-distance penalty.

During a tournament, I ate part of a Snickers bar at the turn and took the wrapper and wiped the melted chocolate on my opponent's driver grip when he wasn't looking. I felt terrible, but I won the match.

As a young caddie at a private club in Rockland County in New York, it was customary for a caddie in each group to go up to the green on the par-3 14th. Only the top of the flag was visible from the tee. I'd always volunteer to be the forecaddie because I had an idea that I hoped would result in a larger tip. It took several rounds, but finally one of my players hit an almost perfect shot that stopped a foot from the hole. I started jumping up and down and yelled "It's in! It's in!" I then ran onto the green and pretended to remove the "ace" from the cup. I'm sure he has enjoyed telling the story of his hole-in-one for years. By the way, the tip was substantial.

I was part of a foursome that played golf twice a month. One member of our group always arrived late. After the round, he'd throw his clubs and shoes in the trunk of my car before we'd have a pint. His clubs would remain in my car until the next outing. I decided to exact some revenge -- and laughs.

I took my buddy's clubs out of his bag and filled the bottom with rocks and then put the clubs back. After a month my buddy said he must be getting out of shape, because he could barely carry his bag for 18 holes. The other members of our foursome and I could hardly contain our laughter. We let him carry the weighted bag until the end of the season and then I emptied the rocks out. To this day he doesn't know he carried an extra 15 pounds the entire season.

My question, too.

*Do you have a guilty secret? Did you cheat in a match, steal someone's putter, give a caddie a lousy tip? For absolution, phone 1-888-923-SINS and leave an anonymous message briefly telling us your sins. Or send an e-mail to: