The veteran in question is one of the nicest guys you'll ever play with.
With galleries and TV cameras you'd think it never happens. Nudge your ball marker a quarter of an inch, and the clip ends up on YouTube. Make the slightest sketchy maneuver, and the story moves down the range faster than a game of telephone. My caddie fills me in on all the gossip. Mess around with a woman who isn't your wife, and eventually most players will forgive and forget. But get called a cheater on the course, and it's a moniker you never lose.
The scrutiny matches the stakes, which is good. Most guys err on the side of being too hard on themselves. Each season I'll witness, at most, two or three arguments over where a ball crossed a hazard. The par-5 11th hole at TPC Sawgrass is one of the trickier spots. Tons of players go for that green in two, and there's never anyone standing along the hazard line looking up.
I once watched a guy dunk a big cut into the water there, and he wanted to drop in the bunker by the green. To my eye, he needed to go at least 180 yards back. We called an official over, but in the end the player stood his ground. It was uncomfortable. The rest of the round I kept a sharp eye on him, probably to the detriment of my game. But it's every player's duty to protect the field.
The most repeated story out here came from a tournament in 2012. By now every person on tour has heard some version, even rookies who've just come up. It certainly sounds like something happened that shouldn't have.
A veteran player, a guy who has made well over $10 million, was paired with a younger journeyman. Late in the round, the veteran hits a drive into the deep rough on a hillside. The whole group is looking for it. The veteran's caddie finds a ball, says it isn't theirs, and throws the ball up the hillside. Couple minutes later, near the spot where the caddie had tossed the ball, the veteran shouts, "I got it" and chops out to the fairway. Having given up helping to look, the journeyman is already down in the fairway, and passes by the ball. He stops in his tracks. He says, "Dude, that's the ball we found that your caddie said wasn't yours and threw up the hill."
The veteran says it isn't. The ball is the same make and number as he'd been playing, though the marking is different.
The journeyman asks if he'd changed the mark.
The veteran says yes, a few holes ago. "Didn't I tell you?"
Obviously, this is where the story sounds like a big he said/he said. But what happens next is fact.
The veteran wedges it close and sinks the putt for par. He makes the cut. The journeyman, who has also made the cut, refuses to sign the scorecard. The third player in the group is staying out of it. The rules official says he can't overrule a player who says he changed his mark, and so the official signs the card. Instead of heading to the locker room to change his shoes, the veteran walks directly to his courtesy car and leaves. The story quickly circulates, and there's major uproar, loudest from the players who missed the cut by one shot.
Funny thing is, the veteran in question is one of the nicest guys you'll ever play with. Always real pleasant and upbeat. But now he has the reputation as somebody you have to watch. It will follow him when he gets on the Champions Tour.
For how much golf we play, it's actually really good how few stories there are like this. No one makes it to the PGA Tour by cheating. But maybe every once in a while it's how someone tries to stay.