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Judgment calls

Are you a Jordan or a Rory? How golfers interpret the rules can say a lot about character and sportsmanship

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Mike Ehrmann

March 20, 2024

One of the marvels of golf is the imprecision of the rules and, as a result, the frequent need for judgment calls. No other pursuit except perhaps marriage reveals character and sportsmanship as wantonly as golf. Two recent events have thrown the game’s top players into this cauldron of public discourse. Surprisingly, neither has anything to do with private equity or public investment funds.

The first was the USGA’s decision to give Tiger Woods its highest honor, the Bob Jones Award for sportsmanship. Woods has a playing record and popularity proportionate with Jones at his peak, but the announcement met with mixed reviews. The Bob Jones doesn’t necessarily go to the game’s greatest players—plenty have not measured up. Sam Snead, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo never got it. Johnny Miller didn’t get it until he was 76, and Gene Sarazen had to wait until his 90th birthday. Some Hall of Famers are judged to be a little rough around the edges by golf’s gentry. Phil Mickelson is the only person to have turned it down, and now he’ll never see a second chance. Sorry DJ, Brooksy, Patrick and Bryson, but it’s hard to conceive of any LIV player getting it—except maybe, when all is forgiven, Jon Rahm.

Some past winners might elicit surprise as their accomplishments had nothing to do with what happened on the golf course—like entertainers Chi Chi Rodriguez, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. I like that 20 women have won the Bob Jones, and not a single token among them. I was there when English amateur Maureen Garrett inexplicably showed up in full kabuki costume to claim her award in 1983. A few have been players recognized for singular acts of sportsmanship (Tom Kite calling a penalty for a moved ball no one else saw or Fuzzy Zoeller waving a towel in mock surrender) and others got it for a lifetime spirit (Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, no explanation necessary). “You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank as to praise him for playing by the rules,” Jones said. A Masters green jacket might make you a prince of the church, but the Bob Jones Award confers sainthood.

Occasionally, you get a head-scratcher. I remember bumping into Nicklaus at a U.S. Open dinner when he shook hands with the Bob Jones honoree and immediately turned to me and said, “What he win it for?”

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The USGA named Tiger Woods as its 2024 recipient of the Bob Jones Award that “recognizes commitment to sportsmanship and respect for golf’s time-honored traditions.”

Kirby

Does anyone really meet the full measure of the immortal Bob Jones, who knew unimaginable success in youth only to suffer the cruelest disease stealing his body and leaving his mind untouched within it? “As a young man he stood up to just about the best that life can offer, which is not easy, and later he stood up with equal grace to just about the worst,” wrote Herbert Warren Wind, who got it in 1995.

Is Tiger really worthy? It’s a judgment call. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart’s description of Claude Rains in “Casablanca”: “He’s just like any other man only more so.” Although Woods' integrity has never been questioned in competition, it's the full measure of his probity and evasion off the course that gives pause. It might be unfair, but his agent and team share in the total judgment.

The other ruling that had us second-guessing this season occurred at The Players in an odd six-minute passion play when Rory McIlroy, among the leaders, drove it into a water hazard on the seventh hole during the first round and was cross-examined in real-time on television by his fellow players, Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland. The question was whether the ball entered above or below the hazard line, affecting where he could drop it, nearer the green or well back. It didn’t matter—or maybe it did—as he double-bogeyed the hole after Spieth and Hovland ultimately yielded that, in the absence of video footage, it must be the player who makes the judgment call.

Having been in this position myself many times, I know my own “lying eyes” honestly tend to see whatever is the most advantageous route even when science and logic might challenge its likelihood. This is also the rationale people use when finding loopholes in the tax code. However, McIlroy said he believed in karma; as a fellow Irish Catholic, I understand the intertwining of conscience and consequence.

All three of these players—Rory, Jordan, Viktor—might one day be candidates for the Bob Jones Award. While tense in the moment, the incident ended amicably. Both Hovland and Spieth dashed from the scene without comment after the round, but Rory took the high road and declared: “Jordan was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing.

These situations recall an opinion piece Peter Dobereiner wrote in April 1984 headlined: “The Rules: Are you a Tom or a Gary?” It was during the first televised Skins Game when Tom Watson accused Gary Player of illegally moving some grass to hit a chip shot. Keep in mind, Player (1966) and Watson (1987) have won Bob Jones Awards. Both men were honest practitioners of the rules, but one consistently went right up to the line in taking advantage of his options, and the other asked where “the line” was and kept as far from it as humanly possible. Dobereiner wrote: “Player looks upon the rules as the golfer’s Bill of Rights. Conversely, Watson sees the rules as the Ten Commandments.” We all fluctuate between these pillars of faith as we chase our ball around the course.

Depending on where you fall on the spectrum, you may be happy or sad to find Rory depicted as Gary Player and Jordan as Tom Watson or even Tiger Woods held up against the standard of Bob Jones. Golf is a game of judgment calls, and that’s what makes the playing so special.

Jerry Tarde, who served on the Bob Jones Award committee for 25 years, thinks the next one should go not to a pro or an amateur but to the Bandon Dunes dreamer Mike Keiser.