Ryder Cup 2021: Back-to-back gimme controversies show problems with golf's unwritten rule

September 25, 2021

Andrew Redington

HAVEN, Wis. — A 90-second sequence Saturday morning produced bruised egos, indignant stares and affronts to manhood, and while it generated some savory social-media clips, it was no surprise. Like poor fashion choices and awkward celebrations, this sort of matter is ingrained in the Ryder Cup.

This sort of matter being, obviously, gimme putts.

The nature of match play—where scoring happens on a hole-by-hole basis rather than the cumulative total—means balls do not need to find the bottom of the cup to count. Holes can be and are often conceded when the opponents know they cannot answer. And that is well and good and a sign of sportsmanship, the very ideal this event was built upon.

The issue is when holes that should be conceded are not. Or maybe the issue lies with the very idea that a hole is expected to be conceded. The same vessel for sportsmanship is often used for gamesmanship, with others contending there’s no connotation involved and it’s strictly competition.

On Saturday morning at Whistling Straits this tornado of trouble touched down twice. The first involved Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schaufeele and Lee Westwood on the sixth hole. Westwood and partner Matt Fitzpatrick were 1 up through five holes, with Fitzpatrick facing a 15-footer to push the advantage to 2 up. Fitzpatrick missed, but didn’t leave much meat on the bone, nothing more than 18 inches. It is a distance well inside the “friendship circle,” a distance that usually motions an opponent to lift his thumb up to move to the next hole. No such gesture was given by the Americans. Now, Westwood and his short game is a fraught relationship, yet even for a shaky putter, it is a putt most would assume to be given. In the Americans' defense, they were down in the match at that juncture. Westwood was incredulous at going through the exercise, but cleaned up what was left to remain 1 up.

Then, barely a minute later, cameras caught Justin Thomas—who was 2 down through seven with Jordan Spieth—tapping in a two-footer and proceeding to lay his putter horizontal in the direction of Bernd Wiesberger and Viktor Hovland, indicating the putt was “inside the leather” and should have been conceded.

Gimme etiquette would side with Thomas, not just due to the length but because he was down in the match. Conversely, with the Europeans getting manhandled through three sessions, every putt and every point weighed heavy, and Thomas had unleashed a primal yell the hole before when cutting the deficit to 2 that may have gotten under the Euros’ skin.

Thomas and Jordan Spieth ultimately won over Hovland and Wiesberger, 2 up, while Westwood and Fitzpatrick lost 2 and 1. None of the players spoke of the incidents afterwards, although no comments were needed to understand how each pair felt. The flames had barely died when Shane Lowry made the same gesture at Thomas on the first hole of his afternoon four-ball match when having to putt out a shortie.

So who is in the right and wrong? The inherent problem with unwritten rules is that, well, they are unwritten. Every language of golf has gimme in its lexicon but it lacks a universal definition. It is an ambiguity that acts as an agent of chaos and controversy.

The prevailing response to those upset at having to make a gimme is, “Well, if it’s a gimme, it shouldn’t be hard to make it.” It’s a sentiment that’s true but fails to understand the heart of the problem. Gimme grievance isn’t the possibility of a miss; it’s that having to make a stroke is a sign of disrespect. That the player is so short on temerity that the gimme is no gimme at all. A golfer, no matter the skill level, is a prideful beast, and this undercuts the very current he or she rides.

Maybe the only way to eliminate the problem is to eliminate gimmes, period. Make everyone putt everything out. If that seems harsh, we give you the case of “The Concession,” where Jack Nicklaus gave Tony Jacklin a two-footer to end he 1969 Ryder Cup in a tie. History has viewed the moment as one of goodwill, and this year the Ryder Cup will bestow the Nicklaus-Jacklin Award to one player from each team that embodies the spirit of the event.

But it was a moment that was not viewed in such light when it happened, with many of Nicklaus’ teammates and captain Sam Snead furious at the Golden Bear. They had retained the cup, but a Jacklin miss would have given the U.S. a win. "When it happened, all the boys thought it was ridiculous to give him that putt," Snead would later say. "We went over there to win, not to be good ol' boys."

Proving that, when it comes to gimmes, no answer is ever the right answer.