Brian Viner: No other sport is as virtuous as golf

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The Independent Online

The 139th Open Championship begins today at the Home of Golf, the marvellous medieval burgh of St Andrews, and the main topic of discussion in the improbably numerous pubs and bars of the "auld grey toon" in the Kingdom of Fife is the form and more especially the mindset of the game's fallen hero, Tiger Woods.

As for the blazered old coves who represent the golfing establishment, they are doubtless still chuntering, in the Royal & Ancient clubhouse that overlooks the first tee of the venerable Old Course, about the embarrassment that the prowling, priapic Tiger has brought upon the game.

In fact, though, hardly anything reflects the glory of golf as vividly as the disgrace of Tiger Woods. What other sport would be shocked to its core by revelations of sexual incontinence on the part of its leading man? It is precisely because golf operates in such a decent moral universe that a story of adultery, albeit on a fairly spectacular scale, continues to reverberate as loudly as only a drug-taking or corruption scandal would in any other sport.

After all, consider the major golfing scandals before Tiger crashed his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant, the minor road accident that unleashed the torrent of tawdry revelations about barmaids and nightclub hostesses. Colin Montgomerie, after picking up his ball when play was suspended because of bad weather in the Indonesian Open five years ago, returned the following day and replaced his ball in a spot that offered him an easier shot. That was the sort of thing that rocked the foundations of the R&A clubhouse until Woods came a cropper. It is largely for want of previous brouhahas that this one has registered so highly on the gin-spluttering scale.

Meanwhile, any columnist or comedian who, not unlike the accusation levelled at dear old Monty, wants to improve his stance and take a comfortable shot at an easy target chooses golf. The stockbroker-belt club with its strict dress code and its unwritten policies of racism, anti-Semitism and misogynism is not, it has to be said, a figment of anybody's imagination, but it should be added that golf has many more virtues than its blinkered critics allow.

At this time of year more than any other, those critics invariably pick on one man to embody the stuffiness of the game, and that is the BBC's portly old Voice of Golf, Peter Alliss, who divides even the keenest armchair fans, and unapologetically presents golf almost as an exercise in chivalry.

Along with other elder golfing statesmen, such as three-times Open champion Gary Player, Alliss takes the view that the world would be a better place if it operated according to the values of fair play inculcated on the green and in the bunker.

The thing is, though, he's right. Certainly there is no major sport that sets a better standard of behaviour. Football has become a game of institutionalised cheating (and what finer example than the Uruguayan last-ditch handball that in effect denied Ghana a place in the last four of the World Cup), while cricket has its match-fixing and its sledging, rugby union its gouging and its blood-capsule outrages. Even tennis has its drug abuse and its psychotically pushy parents.

Golf, however, is still governed principally by good manners. Among youngsters learning the game, it fosters self-discipline and integrity. It is many years since the great amateur player Bobby Jones, on being complimented for having called a penalty shot on himself for moving the ball a fraction when unobserved, deep in the rough, responded by saying "you might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank".

Yet it is to golf's enduring credit that Jones's eloquent indignation at the notion that anyone should be lionised simply for playing by the rules has never started to sound like an anachronism. The rise and vertiginous fall of Tiger Woods doesn't change that one bit.