Rick Reilly, long-time writer for Sports Illustrated, has published a book Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump. Trump certainly isn’t the first President to cheat at golf. Bill Clinton was well-known for taking “Mulligans”. For non-golfers, a “Mulligan” is when you play a lousy shot, take another ball out of your bag and play it, not counting your first stroke. It’s bare-faced cheating even if quite common in friendly games. Trump, according to Reilly, nudges his ball with his foot to get a better lie so often that the caddies call him Pele. Well, it’s a good line even if it suggests that Pele is the last footballer, maybe the only footballer, that American caddies have heard of.
Reilly says he hates cheating at golf because “golf is the only sport where we self-regulate.” This isn’t true of course. Snooker players self-regulate too even if there is a referee watching over them. Then, of course at a lower level – say the level at which Trump plays golf – people play tennis without line-judges and trust their opponent to say whether a shot was in or out.
Indeed self-regulation at a higher level is more common that Reilly seems to suppose. There is of course the famous golfing story of the great Bobby Jones in either an Open or an Amateur Championship inadvertently touching a ball on the green with his putter and calling a stroke against himself. “Nobody saw it, nobody would have known you’d touched the ball,” a friend said. “I knew,” Jones replied.
Such honesty isn’t that uncommon. Cricketers disclaim catches when the umpire is ready to give the batsman out, even when the batsman is starting the long road back to the pavilion, and in rugby one has often seen a full-back signal that a drop goal is good before the referee has made a decision. I have a clear memory of the great Irish full back and captain Tom Kiernan doing this in an international.
This week the American Ryder Cup golfer and Masters Champion Patrick Reid was given a two-stroke penalty for “improving his lie” in a bunker – he was caught on camera. He claims it was inadvertent, but accepted the penalty without demur, taking it, according to the referee, like a gentleman. By Trump’s standards this was evidently a minor misdemeanour, but it will damage Reid’s reputation. It doesn’t help that he is already not the most popular player on the tour, is indeed such an awkward customer that none of his team-mates in the last Ryder Cup are said to have wanted to partner him in the foursomes. But there it is: golf sets itself high standards and has to do so at all levels of the game because the temptation to improve your chances by adjusting the position of your ball is evident. Readers of Wodehouse’s golfing stories collected in The Clicking of Cuthbert and The heart of a Goof will remember cases of golfers adjusting the odds in their favour.
In some sports cheating, if not always admired, is in some circumstances rarely condemned. In football and rugby we recognise what is called the professional foul when a player contravenes the laws to prevent the opposition from getting an advantage. The player who gets his hands on the ball in a ruck to prevent a try being scored will, if the referee is alert, be penalised and probably given a yellow card, but he will rarely be condemned; he has sacrificed himself for the good of the team. Likewise in football, the player who trips an opponent to prevent him from getting a shot at goal will be condemned by opposing fans, not his own ones. Even the forward who dives in the hope of winning a penalty is almost as likely to be admired for smart play as condemned.
There are grey areas in many sports. In cricket there has long been argument as to whether a batsman should “walk” if he has snicked a catch to the wicketkeeper or wait for the umpire’s decision. Some players walk or walked; others don’t. The former Kent and England captain, Colin Cowdrey, was known and generally admired as a walker. Some Australians were more doubtful. They thought he stood his ground when the decision was marginal and that umpires aware of his reputation were then more inclined to give the decision in his favour. The truth is however that, in spite of what many believe, batsmen don’t always know when they have got a very thin edge. The use of DRS (Decision Review System) often proves this. A couple of weeks ago one of the New Zealand opening batsmen was given out lbw and didn’t review; then as he returned to the pavilion, footage showed that he had snicked the ball before it struck his pad. He should have been given “not out”, but he hadn’t felt the edge.
In general Australians have held that the decision should be left to the umpire., though, late in his career, the great wicket-keeper batsman Allan Gilchrist announced that from now on he was going to walk when he knew he was out. Others rationalise their disinclination to do so. There are days when they are given out wrongly. So if the next day an umpire says “not out” when the batsman knows he is out, this just evens things up. Rough justice.
International sport now has neutral referees and umpires. This is a welcome change because there used to be suspicion, and often more than suspicion, that home-team umpires and referees were often partisan and indeed readier than players to cheat. One of Pakistan’s greatest batsmen, Javed Miandad, was said never to have been given out lbw by a home umpire in a Test match. I haven’t checked this so it may not be true. It does however reflect the common belief that home-team umpires and referees may be so inclined to bias that they may fairly be called “cheats”.
One can certainly remember decisions given in school and club matches which suggested that the umpire or referee was more concerned with the result of the match than with the spirit of the game. Just like President Trump on the golf course. The finest example that springs to mind is fictional, coming from the wonderfully comic account of the cricket match in A G Macdonnell’s England, Their England. The visitor’s star batsman had been scoring freely all round the wicket before he inadvertently allowed the ball to strike some part of his body. “‘Out’, shrieked the venerable umpire before anyone had time to appeal.”