Brian Viner: Slick Willy and Tricky Dicky prove that golf's ethics can land us all in the rough

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The Independent Online

Paul McGinley, one of the nice guys on golf's European Tour, was this week accused of gamesmanship by his playing partner in the Irish Open, Kenneth Ferrie. Ferrie implied that on the 14th green, when his ball was moved by a gust of wind, the Irishman had given him advice he knew to be wrong. Ferrie was duly handed a two-shot penalty, and later said: "It's a game of integrity, the sort where you help people you are trying to beat. Was it deliberate? I don't know. But I thought what happened was a bit naughty."

Ferrie later withdrew his charge, saying he never meant "to suggest that Paul had acted improperly". So that was that. Besides, naughtiness in sport is a relative concept. In golf it tends to be at a Just William level, rather than a Saddam Hussein level. But it is worth examining all the same, especially in light of a report that during a fleeting trip to Scotland last week, Bill Clinton found time to play golf at Prestwick, the birthplace of the Open Championship.

The former American President went round in 82, coincidentally the same score as that carded by Jack Simpson, John Ball and Willie Auchterlonie on the days they won, respectively, the 1884, 1890 and 1893 Opens over the same links. So 82 is a noble score at Prestwick, and all credit to Clinton for shooting it, although some sceptics have asked whether he truly did. After all, he was playing with three secret servicemen, who were possibly not as diligent as they might have been in keeping tally, and may also have been more interested in the possibility of someone taking a swipe at Clinton than Clinton taking a swipe at a Titleist DT 90.

Moreover, a New York Times reporter once swore blind that in accompanying Clinton round 18 holes he had counted somewhere in the region of 200 presidential strokes. Yet by the time Clinton signed his card, 118 or so of them had been conveniently overlooked. On that day, too, Clinton returned an official 82.

I must say that this story itself smacks of exaggeration. Clinton might not be quite as good a golfer as he would like the world to think, but I know people with Zimmer frames who could probably shuffle round 18 holes in fewer than 200 shots. Nevertheless, it does seem that the ex-Prez is not overly scrupulous in keeping track of his score, and he is certainly known to favour the mulligan, that curious American country-club convention whereby you cheerfully take a second shot if you screw up the first. Indeed, his nickname in some circles is President Mulligan.

All of which brings me to a significant question: is lack of integrity on the golf course simply an extension of a lack of integrity in life? Or to put it another way, can a person be an all-round good egg, yet cheat on the golf course? I hope so, because I have a friend who appears to fit that description perfectly. He is a caring husband and father, a successful executive popular with his colleagues, a thoroughly decent cove in every way. Except that he has been known to complete a par-five in six strokes and claim a five, and rarely emerges from the rough reporting a lost ball. He almost always, sometimes miraculously, finds the damn thing.

The evidence, alas, is that those who cheat in one department of life, probably cheat in others. There is a famous story about another golfing US President, Richard Nixon. His ball was buried under a bush and seemed impossible to extract, yet after a moment or two it came trundling over the brow of a hill. A reliable witness later reported that he had seen Tricky Dicky take a good look round before picking up the ball and chucking it.

And here's a less famous story known only to a handful of sports writers: at a press conference during a tournament a few years ago, an extremely famous golfer, whom I'll call X, suggested that his playing partner that day, an averagely famous player whom I'll call Y, had somehow cheated. When Y came into the media tent, a brave journalist confronted him with this charge. He looked incredulous. "X is accusing me of cheating?" he said. "He cheats on his wife every weekend!"

This is no time to get immersed in moral relativism, but it is interesting to ponder on whether a professional sportsman should be denied the moral high ground in a wrangle about cheating because of the way he conducts his private life. Whatever, there is a tendency among some golfing old-timers, led by Gary Player, to insist rather piously that if the game's code of ethics were applied to life in general, the world would be a better place.

Their patron saint is the great Bobby Jones who, on being asked why he had called a penalty shot on himself after accidentally nudging the ball when deep and unobserved in the rough, said: "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank." How sad that his famous remark is so often cited to exemplify sporting integrity. That's not how he meant it at all.

Who I Like This Week...

Graham Turner, the manager of Hereford United, my local team, who this afternoon take on Halifax Town for the right to join the Football League. Turner (below) is not only Hereford's manager, but also the chairman and majority shareholder, and when my colleague Phil Shaw called the club earlier this week to request an interview with him, I think you can probably guess who it was who answered the phone. In short, he is a marvellous football man who devotes practically every waking hour to running this splendid little club, and with all respect to Halifax, I hope he gets his due reward in Leicester today.

And Who I Don't

Much as I would like to be more original, and aware as I am of the dangers of English football fans making whipping boys of Scandinavian referees, I can't look beyond Terje Hauge (below) as the object of this week's burst of disapproval. Even he admits that he got it wrong in the European Cup final, and should have allowed Barcelona the advantage, given Giuly's goal, and then shown Lehmann a yellow rather than a red card. I disagree with all those who blithely say that, had Lehmann stayed on, Arsenal would have come back from 1-0 down and won the match. We just don't know. But it does seem immensely regrettable that, not for the first time, the major talking-point after one of football's great showpiece events concerns the ref.