Golfer faces 250,000 pounds bill as libel case fails

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The Independent Online
AN AMATEUR golfer faces a legal bill of up to pounds 250,000 after a jury yesterday ruled that he had not been libelled by two fellow players who accused him of cheating.

John Buckingham, 57, was attempting to sue two members of Sherwood Forest Golf Club in Nottinghamshire over allegations that during a competition in 1990 he twice secretly dropped new balls to replace ones lost, while on another hole he kicked his ball to a more favourable lie.

As the jury delivered its verdict at Nottingham County Court, Reginald Dove, 50, and Graham Rusk, 34, smiled and winked at friends and family in the packed public gallery.

The forewoman then concluded the 10-day hearing by reading from a note passed to the judge: 'We would like you to know that we are concerned our decision might be perceived as proof that Mr Buckingham definitely cheated. This is not necessarily the view of the whole jury. But as reflected in our verdict, we did not feel that Mr Rusk or Mr Dove acted maliciously.'

Later, Mr Dove said he and Mr Rusk were 'very, very delighted' with the outcome. 'It's the end of a long and stressful period in both of our lives. It is not a result for Graham Rusk and me, it is a result for golf, for integrity and honesty, and for sport in general.'

Mr Buckingham, who sold his insurance company to the Swinton in 1988 for about pounds 2m, is unlikely to have difficulty meeting the costs. He said later: 'I am naturally very disappointed at the result, although I am comforted by the jury apparently accepting that I did not cheat.

'I have never cheated at golf and I will vigorously challenge any person who accuses of doing so.'

He added: 'For the moment I want to forget the whole incident and get back to a normal life which will include playing a lot of golf.'

However, his memory may well be jogged again, but that will first require an approach through the literary agent who, it later emerged, is now representing Mr Buckingham.

Mr Dove, the managing director of an insurance company, had told the jury that his playing partner, a retired coal worker and insurance broker, had cheated so blatantly in the Sherwood Open it had insulted his intelligence and that it had been 'tantamount to fraud'.

However, he said he failed to confront Mr Buckingham on the course or in the clubhouse afterwards because he had been so 'shocked and embarrassed' by what he had witnessed. Instead he 'agonised for some four or five weeks' before confiding in the club captain, who advised lodging a formal complaint.

Mr Dove then wrote to the club's committee detailing his accusations. About the same time, the committee also received a letter from Mr Rusk, a former residential social worker, claiming that during a separate round on the same course, Mr Buckingham had followed his ball into a bunker on the seventh and then moved it. Mr Rusk also alleged that on the same hole Mr Buckingham had placed his ball nearer to the hole after putting down a marker to show where the ball should have been replaced.

A 14-man disciplinary hearing, at which Mr Buckingham was represented by a barrister, he was cleared of the four allegations.

Mr Buckingham subsequently demanded that his accusers apologise and contribute to his defence costs. When they refused, he began legal proceedings.

Mr Justice Thomas Heald, himself a keen golfer, told the jury: 'I have ruled that qualified privilege applies in the circumstances of this case - there was a moral and legal duty on the defendants to report actions which they considered to be cheating to the appropriate officers of the club.' But he warned that the defence would fall if it was found that Mr Dove and Mr Rusk had acted maliciously.

(Photograph omitted)

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