Saturday, 26th September 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Cheating – if a golfer cheats in the forest …

Posted on 05. Apr, 2017 by in Golf


Rule abuse is rampant among amateurs, yet professionals exhibit saint-like ethics

BANGKOK, Thailand

“Put me down for a six.”

My friend Dan and I looked at each other? “You sure?” we asked.

We were playing at a Bangkok-area course in a friendly competition (loser buys the beer) against two acquaintances, one of whom was almost elected prime minister of Australia.

The almost-prime minister, who played off six, hit his drive into the hazard, near the water’s edge, and we glimpsed him nudge it out of the lakeside rough with his club, then bend down and place the ball nicely on a tuft of grass, and then take another couple of strokes to reach the green, then a couple of putts.

Six? It was impossible to calculate his strokes because of his rules infringements.

We went on to win the beer, but the incident got me thinking about how widespread cheating is in amateur golf.

In a 2002 survey of 401 high-ranking American corporate executives, 82 percent admitted that they cheat at golf, usually by under-counting strokes or improving their lies.

Why does this bother me?

Golf is the only game where the golfer calls penalties on himself. It is a game of honor, even when the rules appear arcane and silly. For instance, on the course you can move a dead snake out of your line (“loose impediment”), but not a live one (“outside agency”).

But life’s rules don’t have to make sense. They just are. Husbands and wives have their own illogical rules, as do parents, and bosses, and the IRS. You choose to follow them, or not.

And, to their credit, pro golfers respect the rules, and by doing so, respect themselves. Maybe it’s simply the gentlemanly (yes, ladylike is also an appropriate term) way to behave. Maybe the pros know the rules and the amateurs don’t. Maybe it’s the knowledge that a spectator or TV camera is likely to pick up any infringement. But consider these acts of character-building behavior.


In 2005 David Toms disqualified himself from the Open Championship at St. Andrews. He believed he might have hit a moving ball when he played the 17th Road Hole. “It was one of those iffy areas about whether or not a rule was violated and I was the only one that saw it.” After the round he didn’t count the two-shot penalty on himself, signed his scorecard and later reflected “there was too much uncertainty and thought it was better that I disqualified myself.”


Pundits say “it’s not a principle until it costs you money.” Brian Davis of England will earn karma credit for his principles for many years to come.

Immediately after hitting his pitch from the hazard near 18th green at Calibogue Sound, South Carolina, during a playoff with Jim Furyk, Davis summoned a rules official. At stake: the 2010 Verizon Heritage title, which would have earned Davis his first PGA Tour victory and a two-year exemption.

Davis had ever-so-slightly nicked a reed during his backswing. Barely moved it. It could have been a little gust of wind. To the naked eye, it was almost invisible. But not to Davis, who called a two-stroke penalty on himself that cost him the tournament and $411,000, the difference between the first place and second place prize money.

What Bobby Jones said in 1925, after calling a similar penalty on himself, still holds today: “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

* * *

According to Don Van Natta, author of First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush, the worst presidential golf cheats were Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. According to Van Natta, Clinton even had the temerity to blatantly cheat during a round with Van Natta, knowing that the writer was there to document the president’s lack of ethics on the course.

Combining cheating with insensitivity, George W. Bush was teeing off when some journalists asked for his comments about a suicide bomber that had just killed nine people on an Israeli bus. “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers,” the president intoned. “Now watch this drive.” Bush hit a ball into the rough, grabbed another ball and hit his mulligan straight. (Neither “gimme” nor “mulligan” are mentioned in the golf rules.) “Hard this early in the morning to loosen up,” Bush said to the scribbling reporter.

Donald Trump has a chance to take the mantle of least-honest golfing president. Consider:


Mark Mulvoy, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated, was playing with The Donald when Trump arbitrarily placed his ball ten feet from the hole. “Donald, give me a f–g break,” Mulvoy said. “You do not lie there.” When the story was published Trump first denied having ever played with Mulvoy, saying “I don’t even know who is.” Trump also denied the story saying “I don’t drop balls. I don’t move balls. I don’t need to … There’s [sic] very few people that [sic] can beat me in golf.” Then Trump changed tack and added “Ahh, the guys I play with cheat all the time. I have to cheat just to keep up with them.”


Rick Reilly, a golf writer with Sports Illustrated and commentator for ESPN, played a round with Trump and noted “He couldn’t’ have been more gracious or more fun.” But Reilly added that Trump wrote down scores he hadn’t achieved, conceded putts to himself by raking the ball into the hole with his putter instead of striking it properly, and taking “the world’s first gimme chip-in.” Reilly added “When it comes to cheating, he’s an 11 on a scale of one to 10.” Trump replied: “I always thought he was a terrible writer … I absolutely killed him, and he wrote very inaccurately.” Reilly had the last word: “Golf is like bicycle shorts. It can reveal a lot about a guy.”


Boxing champ Oscar de la Hoya said Trump broke the rules numerous times in the two holes the men played together. On one hole, according to de la Hoya, Trump’s first shot landed in the water. The next went out of play. The third sliced back into the water. And the fourth was lost to the surrounding bushes. Yet Trump drove his cart to the middle of the fairway and declared that the ball lying there was his first drive and played from there. Similarly, on the next hole, a par-3, when de la Hoya saw Trump’s tee shot sail into the bushes, Trump “found” his ball three feet from the hole. And then picked it up, claiming a gimme.


Actor Samuel L. Jackson played golf with Trump, along with actor Anthony Anderson. Jackson said he and Anderson “clearly saw [Trump] hit a ball into a lake at Trump National in Jersey — and his caddy told him he’d found it.” Trump played the ball from the fairway, without penalty or chagrin. When the story became public Trump replied that he had never played with Jackson and did not know him, and added that Jackson’s work in the film Pulp Fiction was “boring.”

* * *

The stigma of being called a cheat is as persistent as malaria in the blood.

In 1985, when he was 22, Vijay Singh was banned from the Asian tour by the Southeast Asia Golf Federation for modifying his scorecard in the Indonesian Open by one stroke so he could make the cut, an allegation Singh denies. As a result Singh spent two years in the wilderness, working as a club pro at two courses in Malaysian Borneo.

Singh went on to become one of the world’s best golfers. When he won the 2000 Masters, John Garrity, writing in Sports Illustrated, resurrected the cheating allegation, asking “what’s a fair sentence for a youthful indiscretion?”

Garrity concluded that “he’s a great golfer” and the media should “cut him some slack for a youthful indiscretion and let the man’s brilliance be the standard-bearer for his career.”

Ernie Els came to the defense of Singh and attacked Garrity for even raising the cheating allegation. “Why would someone say that about Vijay as he triumphed in the Masters?” Els asked. “Why would SI’s article on the first major of the 21st century not confine itself to Vijay’s magnificent victory? Why instead did the writer dredge up an unsubstantiated allegation about an event that may or may not have occurred 15 years ago?”

But like a cold sore on a beautiful face, the allegation refuses to completely disappear. As Garrity notes “the cloud of Jakarta hangs over Singh.” Or, as one prominent American golfer sniffed, “Once a cheater, always a cheater. Golf has a long memory.”

* * *

Maybe it was a good thing that my Australian acquaintance never became leader of his country. Does any country need a leader who doesn’t play fair dinkum?


Paul Sochaczewski is an American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland-based.  His recent books include the Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, Share Your Journey, Redheads, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. His website:

This article is excerpted from Paul Sochaczewski’s new book Distant Greens: Golf, Life and Surprising Serendipity On and Off the Fairways. Available on