Golf and the Thin Veneer of Civilization

Patrick Garrity

November 1, 2003

“You play to win the game.”

Herman Edwards, the coach of the New York football Jets, made this statement last season. A reporter asked him if the Jets—then playing poorly and apparently out of playoff contention—might lose interest for the rest of the season. Edwards was incredulous at this suggestion. “You play to win the game,” Edwards said, repeatedly, each time more emphatically, as if he couldn’t believe that someone could question such a self-evident truth. “Hello? You play to win the game.

By the way, the Jets turned their season around and made the playoffs.

So what are we to make of the outcome of last week’s Presidents Cup, a high-profile professional golf competition in South Africa between two twelve-members teams, one representing the United States and the other the rest of the world (excluding Europe)? President George H.W. Bush—an avid golfer himself—and Nelson Mandela attended the festivities. At the end of the scheduled four-day competition, marked by terrific play and great comebacks by both teams, the event was tied, 17-17. The tie was to be broken through a sudden-death playoff between two players chosen by their respective captains. The selections were no surprise: American Tiger Woods, indisputably the best player in the world, against South African Ernie Els, undoubtedly the second best. The fans were delighted with this showdown. Tiger and Ernie did not disappoint. They were still tied after three holes, after both made breathtakingly difficult putts to extend the match.

The day was late and the light was becoming poor. The two captains, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, huddled with their teams. What to do? Woods and Els could not see well enough to continue much longer, if at all. Many of the competitors had other commitments for the next day. After some discussion and debate, the two teams decided that the match would remain tied and the teams would share the Presidents Cup (the United States was the defending champion).

Then the criticism poured in. Herman Edwards’s assertion became an accusation for many fans and members of the media: “Don’t golfers play to win the game?” Shouldn’t the players have continued, with flashlights if necessary? Shouldn’t they have returned the next morning, commitments be damned? Does this outcome not vindicate the argument of many that golf isn’t really a sport—that golfers aren’t athletes—that, in a larger sense, we have all become content with taking the easy way out?


There is no simple answer, but we can begin with a story about one of the two team captains, Jack Nicklaus.

In 1969, as a member of the American Ryder Cup team, Nicklaus was playing in the final match against Tony Jacklin, the leading player on the British team. (The Ryder Cup is the equivalent of the Presidents Cup, with the United States playing against a British-Irish team, later expanded to include continental Europe.) The overall team match was tied and Nicklaus and Jacklin were tied individually. On the final hole, Nicklaus had a putt for par—not a long one, but under the circumstances, not an easy one. Jacklin had a somewhat shorter par putt. If both sank their putts, the entire competition would be tied. But if one of them missed, he would lose both the individual and team match.

Nicklaus, the best pressure putter in the history of the game, calmly stepped up and holed out. He then turned to Jacklin and conceded his putt—that is, Nicklaus generously counted the stroke as made, which is allowed in match play, so Jacklin would not have to face the pressure of his own putt. In doing so, Nicklaus gave up a possible American win. “I didn’t think you would miss it,” Nicklaus, smiling, told Jacklin as they shook hands, “but I didn’t want to give you the chance.”

Nicklaus’s gesture was perhaps not quite as magnanimous as it might seem. Jacklin almost certainly would have made his short putt. The Ryder Cup competition was not as important then as it later became. And as the defending champion, the United States kept the Cup anyway, according to the rules of the event. Yet Sam Snead, a great golfer from an earlier generation, was reportedly so angry at Nicklaus for this concession that he wouldn’t speak with him for some time. Even so, Nicklaus’s action in the 1969 Ryder Cup has become almost universally regarded in golfing circles as the essence of sportsmanship, the proper way for a gentleman or lady to behave.


What entered into Jack Nicklaus’s thinking in 1969 and later, in 2003, that led him to accept a tie—even, in the latter case, if it meant volunteering to share the Presidents Cup?

Golf is an extraordinarily difficult and frustrating game to master, even if most top-flight golfers are not great athletes by traditional standards. If you don’t think so, ask Michael Jordan, who plays the game obsessively yet is not close to being a great golfer. The sport requires an extraordinary level of hand-eye coordination and, even more importantly, an intense and sustained level of concentration. Golf favors the introverted, the single-minded. The best of the lot, the professionals, are intensely competitive. They practice for hours each day, mostly alone. Even when they are on the golf course the players are in their own little world, because no one can hit the shot for them. They must find their ball and play it where it lies. They must play their foul balls, as it were. They cannot run out the clock or punt or bunt.

Everyone hits bad shots, usually at those moments when the pressure is greatest, when the fine muscles and the controlled breathing needed to swing the golf club properly, fail. And failure—not just technical failure, but a failure of concentration and judgment and will—is there for all to see. The unkind expression is “to choke.” During the 1991 Ryder Cup, Mark Calcavecchia, an excellent young player, choked during the final holes of his individual match. There is no kind way to describe it. Calcavecchia went from a big lead to a tied match and nearly cost the United States the competition. He has played some good golf since, but he has never quite been the same player. Curtis Strange, a two-time U.S. Open Champion, is unfortunately still remembered for his poor play during the 1995 Ryder Cup, which the United States lost.

These difficulties are hardly unique to golf, of course. Each sport has its peculiar challenges and difficulties. But we can add a second, complicating element: Golf is an aristocratic sport, albeit with democratic elements. It prides itself on being a game of honor. The players, from the once-a-year hackers to the top professionals, are supposed to know the rules and to enforce them strictly, on themselves and on their opponents. The rules of golf are detailed, fussy and difficult to understand. They are absolute. Even members of the gallery or television viewers can call attention to a rules violation and, if they are correct, the tournament officials are obliged to enforce a penalty or disqualification on the offender, even if the infraction was accidental or trivial. Players, understandably, tend to become more than a little paranoid. Everyone is a potential whistleblower. On top of that, to be suspected of cheating is even worse than being thought a choker.

I do not mean to paint an overly rosy picture of the game, with soft violins playing in the background. The ugly truth is, the nature of golf can bring out the worst of men and women. The peculiar pressure of the sport can easily turn one into a cheater and loud mouth and club breaker.

This pressure is compounded enormously when the event involves match play, rather than the large-field, individual stroke-play tournaments that are the norm in professional golf. In match play, the golfer, sometimes with a partner, competes directly, on a hole-by-hole basis, against another golfer or two-person team. This is equivalent in football to putting Jerome Bettis, a brutally tough running back, one-on-one with Ray Lewis, a brutally tough linebacker, over and over again, in a narrow part of the field. Alone. No blocking. No help. Over and over again. They are not likely to want to shake hands afterwards. They may ask someone to slip them a knife or club.

Match play does not involve physical punishment of this sort, of course, but rather mental punishment. Wimps? Maybe. But again, ask Michael Jordan how easy it is. (Many professional athletes from other sports, when asked to describe the most frightening moment of the careers, speak about the first time they teed off in a golfing pro-am.) And when the match play event is also a team competition, such as the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, the demands of national and team pride are added to individual pride. That is why match play events are rarely held, and international team match play competitions even more rarely. As Curtis Strange says, “If we had to go with match play every week, there wouldn’t be many friends out here.”


If golf is to remain an honorable yet competitive endeavor, a way must be found to accommodate the introverted, solitary, obsessed, paranoid golfer with his fellow players and competitors—especially during these infrequent international team, match-play events. And so golfers are expected to meet lofty, even exaggerated standards of polite behavior. Be a gentleman or lady even if you don’t feel like it.

Over time, a standard of etiquette has developed, as to where and how golfers should walk and stand; when and how they speak; generally, how they should comport themselves. There are many aspects about honorable behavior that cannot be written down in rule books. Beginners are told to look to the example of older players to learn about these essential social aspects of the game. Older players, in turn, look to the greatest players, like Jack Nicklaus.

Non-American golfers often turn to Gary Player, the most honored international player in the game. Nicklaus and Player, rivals in their day along with the great Arnold Palmer, have remained friends. Nicklaus can come across to the public as a bit contentious and pompous. Player often seems flighty. But they take their roles as gentlemen seriously, and they have earned that role. Younger golfers aspire to achieve that recognized status of Guardian of the Game, defined in terms of honor as well as professional accomplishment.

Tiger Woods, whose professional accomplishments are already astonishing, is one of those who so aspire to be a Guardian of the Game. To be sure, like many golfers, he has a real temper. He has been known to unleash a truly impressive string of profanities after a poor shot. He often slams down his clubs. But Tiger embraces the demanding, higher ethos of golf. A few years ago, Woods began to make a point of taking off his cap when he shook hands at the end of a round, to emphasize his respect for the other players and for the game. This particular courtesy had largely fallen into neglect but now, if you watch young men and women play in tournaments around the country, you will see them take their hats off as they shake hands. They do it because that’s what Tiger Woods does. Such behavior helps take the sting off failure and the embarrassment of any temporary or unintentional breaches of etiquette. “I enjoyed the opportunity to play with you. Thank you for the sportsmanship and good play.

The honor of golf is not always upheld of course. That’s precisely the point. Serious violation of etiquette can happen even at the highest levels of golf. Seve Ballesteros, the brilliant Spanish golfer, developed a reputation among American players for “gamesmanship” that bordered on boorish behavior—maybe not exactly talking during an opponent’s backswing, but pretty close. And in the 1999 Ryder Cup, after the American Justin Leonard holed a long putt near the end of a critical match, much of the U.S. contingent, including wives and girlfriends, ran out on to celebrate, doing a little impromptu dance on the course. There was only one problem: Leonard’s putt did not win the Cup. His competitor, Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, still had a long putt of his own to tie the hole and, possibly, to win the event for Europe. Olazabal stood woodenly on the green for some time to wait for the Americans to settle down. Then he missed. Europe lost.


Let us return to the last day of this year’s Presidents Cup. Before Tiger Woods and Ernie Els headed back on the course to break the tie, two events were striking amidst the general drama and superb play, the great comebacks and good sportsmanship. Nick Price snapped, or at least his putter did. And Davis Love hit a very bad shot.

A decade ago, Zimbabwe’s Nick Price was the best golfer in the world. Now in his late 40s, he is still an excellent player. Although Price lives and generally plays in the United States, he was delighted to have qualified for the International Team, because of the location of the event (he was born in South Africa) and because this might have been his last opportunity to compete in such a prestigious event. Price is also regarded by his fellow players, the press, and those amateurs with whom he is paired, as the consummate gentleman—a dogged competitor who is genuinely one of the nicest men around, an unquestioned Guardian of the Game.

On the final hole, Price missed a relatively short birdie putt to lose his individual match. He had every reason to believe that, as a result, his International Team might lose the overall competition. Price appeared to hit a good putt—no choke there—but the ball slid narrowly by the hole. He immediately turned away and, furiously, almost too quickly to be seen, Price bent his putter shaft over his knee.

This was a stunning breach of etiquette. To break a club under those circumstances displaye—in terms of Nick Price’s own sense of honor—a gross lack of respect for the game, the fans and the American side. It was as if the Pope cursed in public. Price immediately realized what he had done. He regained his composure, put the bent putter under his arm to conceal the damage, and shook hands properly with his American competitor, Kenny Perry.

In the final match, Davis Love III held a one-hole lead for the United States. If he could merely tie the hole with Australia’s Robert Allenby, the American team would win the Cup outright. But Love, normally one of the best long-iron players in the game, hit a weak approach shot into the green. He followed this with a poor chip shot—a difficult play, to be sure, but one that top-level professionals often pull off. Love lost the hole and the event was tied 17-17. If Tiger Woods did not prevail in the playoff, Davis Love was a fair candidate to be, The Man Who Cost the United States the Cup. The Man Who Choked.


As it turned out, Tiger Woods did not lose the playoff. Nor did Ernie Els. They were far from perfect. They hit several poor approach shots, leaving them with extremely difficult, match-saving putts. I would have bet a signed copy of the Gettysburg Address—if I had a signed copy—that they would have missed them. I can’t imagine how they were able to make 10-15 foot putts, in poor light, at the end of an exhausting competition, with all the self-imposed pressure, coupled with the pressure of representing your teammates and your country or countries. One of them simply must yield to the nerves and the conditions. Remarkably, for three holes, they didn’t.

As the match went on, however, captains Nicklaus and Player looked increasingly concerned. They had even debated, before the playoff started, of stopping the event. But in golf, rules are rules, and the previously agreed upon rules said, play on.

Still, the Presidents Cup is billed as an exhibition, designed to promote good golf and good will. Neither team, the captains felt, deserved to lose. Neither Tiger nor Ernie should be asked to take on the load for the entire team. You could sense what the captains were thinking. This was no longer a team competition, it was Russian roulette, and somebody could be killed, professionally. Tiger said afterwards of his putts that it was “one of the most nerve-wracking moments I’ve ever had in golf.” Ernie agreed—it was “probably the first time I’ve ever felt my legs shaking a little bit.”

One of these two great players—under these unusual, unexpected conditions—was likely to yield to nerves or fatigue, to make a mistake, perhaps a stupid one, which would cost them the match. There may have been a club-breaking moment, or a career-defining failure, or a putt that should have been conceded but wasn’t, with hard feelings carried down for years to come. An overexcited spouse—the wives and girlfriends were walking with the other players—might say something unfortunate to the other side that could not be taken back. And all the golfers on the losing side would be forced to account for their failures in what otherwise had been a brilliant competition.

Darkness approached. If it had been an individual championship at stake—a U.S. Open or British Open—there would have been no choice, no decision. Play on, somehow, some time, no matter what, let the pressure and unlucky bounces and long-term consequences be damned. There must be a winner. Professional golfers accept such as their lot.

But this was different.

As the third playoff hole ended, Nicklaus and Player moved quickly to propose a tied match. You could see the surprise on the faces of Tiger and Ernie, caught up as they were in their own, fiercely competitive world. Stop? No way. Nicklaus then suggested that the U.S. should retain the Cup as the defending champion. Ernie would have none of that. But after further discussion, the deal was struck – a tied match and joint possession of the Cup. It was as if Jack Nicklaus had said to all concerned, as he said years earlier to Tony Jacklin, “I didn’t think you would miss it, but I didn’t want to give you the chance.” Two Guardians of the Game, who had always abided strictly by the rules, decided to ignore or finesse them. Afterward, the players on both teams agreed, publicly at least, that it was the right thing to have done. We don’t know what the late Sam Snead might have said.

So were the golfers of the Presidents Cup gentlemen or wimps? Isn’t the risk of failure part of any sport? Can one really expect to establish an honorable limit on pressure—this far and no farther?

In the end, golfers, or those sympathetic to golf, must yield to the proven judgment of those who have been there and done that, with honor. If Lincoln were here to speak about abortion or gay marriage, I would listen. If Churchill were here to lay out a course for dealing with Iraq, I would listen. Jack and Gary cannot claim quite that exalted status. When they decide, however, that there are exceptions in golf, in extraordinary circumstances, to the self-evident truth that games are played to be won, I have to listen. It was not a perfect ending. It was not a satisfactory ending. But life, and especially golf, seldom are.

Patrick Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.