James Lawton: Roe pays high price but golf can be proud of its rules

Despite the professional game's wealth since the arrival of Arnold Palmer, self-regulation and discipline remain fundamental principles
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By yesterday the bleeding heart persuasion was in full flow on behalf of Mark Roe. Surprisingly enough, the old pro and former Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance was their most passionate spokesman, provoking the question: when should a principle be discarded?

The answer, apparently: when it works against the possibility of a happy ending or when it is inconvenient or when a sufficient number of people who should know better choose easy, crowd-pleasing emotion over rational thought.

Torrance agreed that rules were rules, but it was such a pity the Royal and Ancient did not apply a little common sense before denying Roe his Sunday afternoon stroll with Tiger Woods in the Open. It was a compassionate, heart-rending plea, no doubt. But quite wrong.

That last declaration obviously needs some leavening. Of course it was sad, in sporting terms, even tragic, that the engaging Roe, having played with such brilliance on the third day, should fall foul of a bureaucratic error. Life, we can all agree, shouldn't be like that, and it was not the least painful glory of the 40-year-old Roe that his initial reaction was entirely at one with the most basic underpinning of the game which is his professional life. That's the one that insists that every golfer is responsible for his own actions.

Those who argue that Roe should have been allowed to play on are clearly right when they say that his failure to exchange scorecards with his playing partner, Jesper Parnevik, had absolutely nothing to do with cheating, and there is no doubt that after duelling so superbly with the formidable and at times sadistic Royal St George's course for a potentially tournament-winning 67, disqualification was a cruel price to pay for an innocent oversight. But then, of course, buried in this intensely human story is that business of principle. The routine of exchanging scorecards is a cornerstone of golf's uniqueness: it is a game of trust as well as rules, and the idea is that the one supports the other.

Above everything is the integrity of scoring and the observation of the rules. This is why Davis Love pointed out that his ball had moved, why Thomas Bjorn accepted that he was due a two-stroke penalty when he swept his sand wedge across the bunker in a moment of frustration - a penalty that in the end cost him his first major tournament - and why the professional career of the Scotsman David Robertson was wrecked when he was found to have gained advantage from marking his ball on a green.

But then, you may ask, what damage would there have been if Roe's oversight had been overlooked or pardoned? None if you believe that rules which mean anything at all can be moulded to circumstance... and populist reaction. Perhaps, though, you hold with the view that it is quite amazing, given the wealth that has poured upon the professional game since the arrival of Arnie Palmer back in the middle of the last century, that golf remains a miracle of self-regulation and discipline. If you feel this, it is reasonable to say that the price Roe paid, while devastating in personal terms, had a genuine meaning.

The Roe affair, in reality, was the latest explanation of why golf is so utterly separate from sports like football and cricket, where cheating has become endemic.

Consider the vagaries of football discipline and the anarchy it has created. Consider the sickening prevalence of bogus appeals in cricket. Then assess for a moment the agonies of golf when it came to adjudicate on the Roe affair. The process provoked a conclusion, already argued cogently by The Independent's golf correspondent, Andy Farrell, that there is an overwhelming case for standardisation of scoring procedures. However, another observer pointed out that maybe it is not too much to ask professional golfers to undertake their own routine "cockpit checks" as airline pilots do. When Ian Woosnam was deducted two strokes for having 15 clubs in his bag, he fired his caddie, but ultimately it was his responsibility, and his Open tournament to win or lose.

As the debate swirled over the weekend it was interesting to note the passionate support for the R & A offered by Gary Player. The South African legend was emphatic. A golfer had to observe the rules - or pay the price. It was hard not to recall another controversy which came in the Eighties, when Player was accused of cheating by Tom Watson during a skins game. Watson, supported by a television shot, complained that Player had detached a leaf of a living plant which was screening his ball. Player fiercely defended his position. Watson dug in his heels. You had to marvel then at a game which fought civil war over the fundamental importance of not separating a sprig of plant life from the earth.

No doubt the R & A should examine procedures, and ask itself if a lot more could not have been done to prevent Mark Roe making a mistake that will haunt him for ever. Having said that, however, no one should regret that when the damage was done, and judged irreparable, golf fell back on its rule book. Laws and manners are, we know, marks of civilisation. They also, rather miraculously, preserve golf as the game of superior life.