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HONOR ROLE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Jack Nicklaus was 11, he was playing golf with his father in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, when he hit his ball into a bunker. If you think that made young Nicklaus happy, you don’t know Jack.

“The ball had hardly reached the bunker before my club was following it in there too,” Nicklaus said.

But if Jack was angry, his father was absolutely steamed.

“He came over to me and said ‘Jack, if you ever throw another club, it’ll be the last time you play.’ And you know, I haven’t thrown another club since.”

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Well, good for you, Jack. Fortunately, the world has been safe from airborne clubs flung from Nicklaus’ hands for quite a while now. To be sure, there still is some graphite-shafted, titanium-headed projectile tossing going on out on the golf course, but as a rule, you’d have to admit that golf is a fairly orderly sport.

If you think about it, that’s not something you can say about too many professional sports these days. In fact, name another one. Name one other sport in which history and tradition are revered, sportsmanship is honored and observed, the rules are sacrosanct and the players wear pants with such sharp creases you could slice tomatoes with them.

Consider the proposition that golf is the last bastion of civility in pro sports, a lonely oasis of order in an otherwise desert landscape where you see pure, unadulterated sportsmanship about as often as you see Dennis Rodman and Latrell Sprewell in a library.

There used to be plenty of other sports in which actual sportsmanship flourished.

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Such as tennis. Unfortunately, sportsmanship in tennis went out about the same time they stopped playing in white flannel pants with their hair slicked back as if they used vegetable oil for gel.

Sailing was up there for a while, until they started cheating with those funny hulls designed to make the boats go faster than a summer vacation.

Baseball? Hardly. Like a baseball in your ear? Football? Sure thing, and see you at the next crackback block party.

You’re beginning to see the point. Three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin is clear on the concept.

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“If you can get way with it, you bump into the other guy’s tires and he winds up in the wall, well, that’s part of auto racing,” Irwin said. “You gouge a guy’s eye with a high stick in hockey, but nobody calls it, that’s OK. You hold onto the other guy’s jersey in basketball, nobody calls a foul, then that’s OK too.

“I don’t think that the game of golf was intended to be played that way.”

So maybe golf gets to carry the sportsmanship banner by default, but that shouldn’t diminish the fact that golf stands out for the way it goes about its business. Golf does that in a manner that sometimes seems strangely out of place in the anything-goes, nothing’s-wrong-if-they-don’t-call-it, is-the-TV-camera-pointed-at-me? regimen that dominates professional sports these days.

Nicklaus said what sets golf apart is respect.

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“It’s always been a game of honor,” he said. “You respect the golf course, you respect the traditions, you respect the game itself, you respect the players. It’s what separates golf from every other sport.”

Byron Nelson considers it semi-amazing that golf has maintained his dignity despite the pressures that big-time money can bring. As you might have recognized in pro sports, money changes everything, and not often for the good.

“I’ll tell you, I am extremely proud of the way the boys conduct themselves,” said Nelson, who won the Masters twice, the PGA Championship twice and the U.S. Open once. “They don’t do it perfect. The pressure is so great now. The money they are making now is so great, that makes it difficult.”

Nelson said that in 1945, when he won his record 11 consecutive tournaments, he cashed in with one commercial endorsement--$200 from Wheaties. Players now routinely receive $10,000 for one-day corporate outings. Last year’s leading money winner on the PGA Tour was Tiger Woods with nearly $2.1 million, but he has deals for off-the-course income of about $100 million.

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With so much money at stake, it’s only natural that there be some incidents in which a player might deliberately, let’s say, enhance his chance at winning and thus taking a trip to the bank. Sometimes there are honest mistakes made. On other occasions, the mere hint of a bending of the rules has been enough to rattle the trophies off the mantel.

Mark Brooks has won the 1996 PGA and six other tournaments in a 15-year pro career and made a good living out of hitting the ball straighter than a lot of people. Going straight is a good rule for the people hitting the ball too, Brooks said.

“As far as cheating, like moving balls, nobody does it,” he said. “Somebody would see him. Moving ball markers, replacing the ball on the green, it’s not done. You’ve got your coin on the green and you move it a quarter-inch closer to the hole or something. It’s ridiculous. There’s no advantage gained, except maybe mentally for the player.

“But the penalty. It’s a stigma, a bad one. You basically have to go into hiding. And scorecard cheating, this guy has to basically go off by himself and he falls off the face of the earth.”

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Two of the more celebrated cases involve Mark McCumber and Vijay Singh. McCumber, a 10-time tournament winner, was accused by Greg Norman of using his thumb to tap down a spike mark in his putting line at the World Series of Golf several years ago. McCumber said he was squashing a bug, but enough people believed McCumber capable of such an act that the 46-year-old has basically disappeared from the tour.

At the same time, McCumber’s health failed, some believe because of the stress of the situation. His rank on the money list dropped from No. 3 in 1994 to 47th and then 312th last year.

Singh was accused of improving his score by purposely signing an incorrect scorecard in a 1983 Asian Tour event in Indonesia. He was suspended from the Asian Tour for two years and virtually dropped out of sight. The 35-year-old Fijian’s version was that a scorekeeper had erred, not he, and that it was all a misunderstanding.

Then there is the newest controversy. This spring, Swedish golfer Jarmo Sandelin said that he had studied a videotape of a French tournament he lost to Mark O’Meara and had noticed that the Masters champion had cheated by replacing his ball on the green a fraction of an inch closer to the hole. O’Meara, upset by the allegations, said he would never knowingly do such a thing.

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Brooks said that golf passes the white glove test and even has a suggestion to take the honor code a step further.

“I think our sport is so clean, I don’t see any reason why we don’t keep our own scores. I think we would have zero problems. Zero.”

According to Gary Player, society could learn something from golf.

“If life could be run like golf, we would have a society with no crime,” he said. “A perfect society.”

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Maybe, but Player himself was once dragged into controversy when Tom Watson accused him of pulling a rooted leaf out of the way on a chip in the 1983 Skins Game.

Player remembers disqualifying himself one year at Greensboro because he walked five yards out of the scorer’s tent before he signed his scorecard. But Player insisted he was never a club-thrower. Just as it was with Nicklaus, his father was a major influence.

“Never threw clubs. Couldn’t. After all, my father had borrowed money to buy me clubs. He said ‘Gary, I’m a poor man. If I ever see you throw or break a club, then I’ll break your neck.’ ”

Player’s neck remains intact to this day. Nelson said he threw a few clubs, but not too many. He did remember tossing his putter in 1936 at Vancouver, though.

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“I won’t say I haven’t ever shoved a club in my bag real hard, or something like that,” he said. Gene Sarazen is able to put the behavior issue in a historical perspective. After the legendary Bobby Jones won his grand slam in 1930 that included the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur, Sarazen was the next to win all four of golf’s major events. His victory in the 1935 Masters completed his task, adding that title to his U.S. Open victories in 1922 and 1932, his PGA victories in 1922, 1923 and 1933 and his British Open victory in 1932.

Sarazen says there is a much higher level of sportsmanship in golf now than in his era.

“Most of these boys are college graduates, or at least they went to college and majored in golf,” he said. “We were a bunch of ex-caddies who were trying to win. There weren’t any college boys in the field. These guys today aren’t Good Time Charlies.”

Maybe so. Whatever their names are, they’ve got a fairly keen sense of history, according to Ben Crenshaw, and that has had a lot to do with keeping golf at the forefront of the sportsmanship issue.

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“The tradition of this game, gosh, it’s 500 years,” Crenshaw said. “And it’s always been a game of honor. The worst punishment in the world is if you knowingly broke the rules, and when you’re found out, you’re banished from the wonderful game we play.

“Everyone puts our game on a pedestal. No one wants to see it change.”

Oh, but that could happen, Irwin says, if the history lesson becomes something in an old book that players in the future simply can’t relate to.

“Maybe in the years to come, we’ll see that phasing out of people, the phasing out of Jones, the players from 20 to 30 to 50 years ago. It’s like the old Scottish golfers are to me. You just lose track after some time.

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“What we have to do is take a more contemporary approach to time. Make it more relevant. When we play golf courses and major championships, make sure we use those occasions to keep reminding us as players who was there before us in time.

“I can tell you, when you win one of those and see that trophy and the names on it and you ask yourself, ‘Was my effort any less than any of those who won it before?’ No! Remind yourself. Keep the memories alive. Make it a part of the present and the future.”

Now is that a good sport or what?


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