Brian Viner: Venturi dredges up old Masters controversy

Imagine Jimmy Hill suggesting that Sir Bobby Robson conspired in match-fixing in the 1950s
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If the former CBS golf commentator and 1964 US Open champion, Ken Venturi, turns up at the Augusta National for the US Masters next month, he would be wise to disguise himself as a dogwood.

If the former CBS golf commentator and 1964 US Open champion, Ken Venturi, turns up at the Augusta National for the US Masters next month, he would be wise to disguise himself as a dogwood.

For Venturi has committed the biggest crime of lèse-majesté since one of King Louis XIV's courtiers told him he had a strand of melted cheese hanging off his chin: he has accused Arnold Palmer, who this year will be playing in his 50th and final Masters, of cheating.

It is hard to think of a more venerated figure in any sport than Palmer, and therefore hard to think of a more shocking accusation than Venturi's, even though it relates to events nearly 50 years ago. Imagine Jimmy Hill suggesting that Sir Bobby Robson conspired in the fixing of football matches in the 1950s, and you have a broadly equivalent situation.

Venturi's claim, revealed in his new book Getting Up And Down: My 60 Years In Golf, is that Palmer pulled a fast one by playing a second ball at Augusta's 12th hole - arguably the most -famous par-three in golf - in the final round of the 1958 Masters. When Palmer found his tee shot plugged just off the green, he asked for a free drop, which he was denied. He duly took a five but then returned to the tee to play a second ball, with which he scored a par three.

As I understand the rules of golf - which admittedly is like saying as I understand the lay-out of the Bulgarian national grid, so confusing are some of the game's technicalities - players are perfectly entitled to play a second ball in the event of a disputed ruling, but must state immediately that this is their intention. The rules Johnnies will then debate the issue and arrive at an unequivocal decision.

Palmer's misdemeanour, asserts Venturi, who was his playing partner that day, was to decide to play the second ball only after he had recorded a potentially ruinous double-bogey with the first. Still, a few holes later he was told that the three would stay on the card, and he went on to win the first of his four green jackets.

"Nobody, not even Palmer, is bigger than the game," Venturi writes. "I firmly believe that he did wrong."

Venturi further claims that the tournament's founders, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, told him that Palmer's original score should have stood. As both men now stalk the celestial locker-room (or possibly the downstairs locker-room in the case of Roberts, who is generally accepted to have been an unpleasant piece of work), this is difficult to prove.

Whatever, it is probably safe to assume that Venturi will not be an honoured guest at this week's Bay Hill Invitational in Florida. Arnie - who vigorously denies the cheating charge - is the emperor of Bay Hill. To spend time there in his presence, as I did for a day a few years back, is to know what it must be like to hang out with God. Folk even stand around watching him eat.

But none of that is to say that Venturi has got it wrong, and however nasty the whiff surrounding the timing of his accusation, with Palmer about to take his valedictory strides along Augusta's manicured fairways, he has by all accounts been saying the same thing for 46 years. He just hasn't made it public before.

In having his character brought into question, Palmer joins another of the Big Three who so dominated the game in the 1960s. Gary Player likes to tell anyone within earshot that in a corrupt sporting world, golf is a beacon of morality. Yet Player, too, is dogged by accusations of cheating, which he too denies.

It is often suggested - without a shred of hard evidence, I should add - that the ball he lost and the ball he found on the final hole of the 1974 Open Championship at Lytham were not, in fact, one and the same.

My inclination, in Player's case as in Palmer's, is to dispense the benefit of the doubt. Besides, if I were held to account for a bit of naughtiness in 1974, I would now be facing prosecution for pinching a Twix from Boots in Chapel Street, Southport. Right now there are few enough genuine heroes in sport; we can hardly afford to besmirch the reputations of two such colossi, whose charismatic deeds did much to make golf the popular sport it is today.

On the other hand, I am minded for the umpteenth time to tell the story of the same Bobby Jones whose posthumous support Venturi is requisitioning, who on being commended for calling a penalty on himself - having accidentally nudged the ball when deep in the rough and out of sight - remarked: "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank." Can even Palmer and Player lay claim to that kind of luminescent integrity? I suspect not.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

Comments