One of the best golfers on the PGA Tour today is a renowned cheater. This is not the opinion of an eagle-eyed member of his gallery or of some vigilant living room detective who pores over the television broadcasts with a rule book and a jeweler's loupe. It is the view of enough of his comrades to constitute a quorum. On their short lists of the untrustworthy, he is invariably featured. Some international players tend to lead the register with his name. Of course it is a sealed indictment.
At this level, cheating is a subtle thing. It can be as ephemeral as the weight of pressure a player uses to tamp down the rough as he or she places the club head behind the ball at address. It can revolve around a blemish on the green that an amateur wouldn't even notice, and the taking of a microscopic liberty in what should be the punctilious process of marking one's ball.
Years ago at a U.S. Open, a beefy Californian named Lon Hinkle stood over a budding young star throughout their round, calling to mind a schoolmaster proctoring an exam. "He's going to have to learn how to mark his ball like a pro," Hinkle explained afterward.
This was the issue in the LPGA's Jane Blalock incident of two decades ago which seemed to suggest that male and female golfers are made of the same clay. Suspended by her peers, Blalock was reinstated on anti-trust grounds. A judge ruled Blalock's direct competitors were not entitled to judge her.
The modern golfer in question has won millions of dollars since the early '80s. But he thrashed about for a few earlier summers, lost his playing card once and had to return several times to the merciless cauldron of the Tour's qualifying school.
There is no steamier pressure in golf than coming down the Q School stretch on the edge of employment, literally playing for a livelihood. It's an eerie event, a tournament without leaderboards in which the contestants instinctively know exactly where they stand.
At the 15th hole of the sixth and final round, all of the members of his threesome knew they couldn't be more than one stroke to the good. Each was desperate for another birdie. The other two were fairly far from the hole and felt relieved to two-putt. He had a six-footer for birdie that grazed the cup but stayed on its lip. With a bolt of anger, he went to swat it in too hard and, decelerating abruptly, missed the ball entirely. Stepping back for an instant, he tapped it in. According to one of the playing partners, his face was as white as gypsum.
Neither of his companions could believe what he had just seen. Did that really happen? Before their spinning heads could fully process the information, he had stomped past them to the 16th tee, propped up his ball and blasted it into the sky. If he still claimed the honor, that meant he must have taken a par. They looked at each other confusedly but said nothing.
All three got their cards: two by a meager stroke; the third, the cheater, by two. Nobody in the field was denied a job by the dishonesty at the 15th.
Into the night, two of them drank to their success. However, when the exultation wore off before the liquor did, the potential injustice hit them full force. The smaller man, who was a handy player but a short hitter and, as it turned out, did not make it on tour, went to the telephone and woke up the cheater.
After identifying himself, he said, "I just want you to know that I saw what you did at 15 today. It's too late for anyone to do anything about it, but I want you to understand you have to live with that the rest of your life. Do you get me? Is that clear?"
"Yeah," the cheater said, and hung up.
He could become a historic player, but he will be a cheater his whole life.
A number of years ago, at Royal Lytham in England, a historic player won the British Open by many shots. But, even with a plump lead, he had a moment's awful anxiety when his ball seemed lost just off the green on the 71st hole. The clock was started and he was panicking. Answering his high-pitched pleas, spectators poured into the hay to rummage for his ball.
On the precipice of the deadline, as the seconds were ticking down 5 . ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... , his caddie, of all people, shouted "Eureka!" Not since Odd Job came through for Goldfinger at Royal St. George's had a caddie made such an opportune find.
But a few Scots in the crowd were suspicious, as one of them relates the tale. Later that night after dark in fact, he said they returned to the bracken and broom with torches. They searched and they searched and, sure enough, they found a ball with professional markings on it.
They took it back to their club and put it on the mantel without a plaque of explanation. When visitors wondered what it signified, they just shook their heads sadly.
The ball disappeared eventually. Some fine upstanding golfer probably stole it.