Brian Davis awoke at his Orlando residence yesterday – which happens to be just around the corner from the famous family home of a certain Tiger Woods – to discover that the most popular American sports network was crediting him with "single-handedly restoring the good name of golf". The accolade summed up a bizarrely bittersweet 24 hours for the Briton.
Golfing folklore already holds a special place for Davis after his remarkable act of honesty in the sudden death shoot-out of the Verizen Heritage tournament in South Carolina on Sunday night. The 35-year-old denied himself the chance of winning his first American title, not to mention a cheque for more than $1m (£650,000), when calling a penalty on himself for an unwitting infringement undetectable to the naked eye of TV viewers across the States – or, even, to the referee standing just a few feet away.
The two shots Davis relinquished handed the spoils to Jim Furyk and kept the Londoner waiting for his first PGA Tour victory since switching from Europe five years ago. This was his fourth runner-up placing and, after holding a one-shot lead with four to go, was the most frustrating. But if Davis went to bed feeling like a loser he got out of it being showered in praise. Indeed, ESPN's hyperbolic assessment was echoed across the internet. "I've been amazed about the number of texts and messages on my website I've received," Davis told The Independent yesterday. "Most of them said how good an example I've set to the kids." His manager, Gary Evans, added: "Golf has recently had its reputation dragged through the mud but Brian has just proved that the game's ethos is still intact."
That was the general opinion across the grateful golfing world. Furyk himself expressed his "respect and admiration for what Brian did", while Slugger White, the referee, was even more effusive. "That will come back to Brian in spades, 10-fold," said. "That guy is class, first-class."
For his part, Davis, despite being the son-in-law of the former England goalkeeper Ray Clemence and fully understanding the dubious role honesty plays in other professional sports, has been surprised at the reaction. "That's what makes our sport so special, I guess," said Davis. "I had one text from a senior golfer who called a penalty on himself years ago and it cost him a tournament against Jack Nicklaus. He wrote: 'Look, I know you're down right now but, trust me, it'll be the best thing you've ever done.' Yeah, I want to win a PGA Tour event, but I play by the rules and no victory would be worthwhile if it had a cloud hanging over it. I couldn't live with myself."
Davis's attitude is all the more commendable considering the nature of his "foul", which will at best be seen as petty by the layman. Davis's approach to the 18th ended up on the beach, which is classed as a hazard. Rule 13.4 forbids players from moving loose impediments in hazards and as the reeds surrounding his ball were not attached to the ground he was not allowed to touch them in the process of making his swing.
"This little twig was sticking out, six inches from behind the ball, but I didn't think I would touch it," said Davis. "I took a big swipe, but it was the weirdest thing. I didn't feel myself touching the twig, but I saw something move. I wasn't sure if my club had made contact or not, but I called Slugger over and asked him to check. The videos showed it had and that was that. End of story."
"If Brian hadn't have called it nobody would ever have knew," said Evans. "Only when the pictures were slowed right down did they realise. With bonuses and everything the victory could have been worth a million more dollars to him. Plus he would have got a spot in next year's Masters. Yes, we're all disappointed for him. But we're also so, so proud."
Evans' pride is understandable. The former pro was Colin Montgomerie's most vocal critic in the wake of Jarkatagate five years ago, when the Scot was caught on camera replacing his ball in a blatantly advantageous position but escaped punishment. Montgomerie is, of course, Europe's Ryder Cup captain this year. After breaking into the world's top 100 Davis is now a dark horse to make the team. Yet if points were handed out for sportsmanship he would have already qualified.