Golf is a game of honor.
One of its greatest virtues is that golf relies primarily on its players, not referees, to administer rules and ensure that a given competition plays out fairly for all.
But that virtue seems to be a bit under fire recently.
According to a piece in the Detroit Free Press, two Michigan high school teams might have colluded to sign for drastically lower-than-usual scores in order to get into their division's state tournament.
You should read the piece (here), but here's the short version:
1. Two schools, Baltimore Anchor Bay and Harrison Township L'Anse Creuse, finished 1-2 in regional qualifying for the state Division I high school tournament at Twin Lakes Golf Club earlier this spring. They shot 284 and 296, respectively, in that qualifier. As in college tournaments, five players competed for each team, and the sum of the lowest four scores counted. Anchor Bay had two players shoot 68, while L'Anse Creuse's four players shot between 72 and 77.
2. In the state championship, both teams posted significantly - and suspiciously - higher scores, finishing second-to-last and last, respectively, at The Meadows at Grand Valley State University. How different were these scores? The two Anchor Bay players who signed for 68s in the regional tournament shot 93 and 105 in the first round at The Meadows. Their teams shot 385 and 401, respectively, in that round. They ultimately finished an embarrassing 140 and 179 strokes behind Division I winning team Grosse Pointe South.
How did this happen? It turns out Anchor Bay and L'Anse Creuse were paired together at that regional tournament with Fraser High School, which also returned suspiciously low scores but not low enough to get through to the state tournament. Apparently Fraser's players didn't cheat hard enough.
The main victims of this deception seem to be the teams from the Rochester Adams and Bloomfield schools, who finished fourth and fifth (and by all accounts played within their normal abilities), just outside state tournament qualification, in the disputed May 30th qualifier.
What's most disturbing about this story is that, according to some people with experience in junior golf recently, it is far from an isolated incident. Brian Cairns, a Michigan teaching pro whose students include several competitive junior players, said "I hear about [score-shaving] not once a year, a lot of times each year. Even in the junior tournaments in the state, and in the country."
Are golf's high standards of honor under siege?
If this is true, then we've got a big problem brewing in competitive golf. Anyone who watches World Cup soccer in the coming month will see tons of dives, faked injuries and dirty plays designed to gain an advantage over one's opponent. Almost inevitably, a pitcher in Major League Baseball will get thrown out of a game for having too much pine tar on his arm or behind his ear. But the notion of a Web.com Tour or PGA Tour player signing for a 67 when he really shot 72 is so outlandish that most fans of the game would probably laugh it off.
Sure, there have been instances of eyebrow-raising rule-bending, including this Golf Digest piece, but until now, the adage about yelling "Fore!" making a six and writing down a five has always been one of the game's well-worn jokes.
In light of this Michigan high school cheating scandal, it doesn't seem as funny.
It would be unlikely for this phenomenon to be limited to just one state. If you have a junior golfer, chances are some of his or her opponents might be trying to fleece the field. You need to be vigilant and preach vigilance in order to force this behavior out of the shadows. It will require an uncomfortable confrontation, but if golf is going to continue to assert that it is a game of honor, its players need to preserve the covenant that the high standard requires.
Having played competitive golf, from local and regional junior tournaments up through college and beyond, since about 2000, I can only recall one clear instance of cheating that I witnessed. I had another player disqualified once from a junior tournament in Massachusetts. He hacked the ball around all day and couldn't possibly have broken 90. I wasn't his marker, but I had been paying some attention to his play - enough to be certain that he didn't shoot the 77 that had gone up on the scoreboard next to his name, after we'd signed our cards. I went to the scorers, pointed out that he made a 4 on a hole where he signed for a 3 and that was enough to DQ him. It was an awkward and tense few minutes, but I felt compelled to protect the field. Who knows how many times he'd gotten away with similar behavior on the course?
The incident I witnessed was in individual play, and I can see it happening here and there (unfortunately). But it's difficult to conceive of the sort of coordinated dishonesty it took for Anchor Bay, L'Anse Creuse and Fraser to pull off their stunt, not to mention the brazen stupidity of so obviously deflating scores. Did they think no one would notice the difference in their scores when they were paired with other teams at the state tournament?
PGA Tour competitive ethics talk of late has focused on "backstopping," where players selectively mark or leave their balls near the hole while another player chips up, potentially helping to keep the chipping player's ball from wandering too far from the hole if it runs into the unmarked one.
Debate on backstopping continues with talk of integrity
It's a little harder to call this "cheating" outright - certainly it's more nebulous than blatant score-changing - but in light of more obvious examples of the sort of cheating behavior that golf likes to hold itself above, it's worth being concerned that we're at the top of a slippery slope.
If you play competitive golf - be it a member tournament at your club or a state amateur or open - keep in mind that you and every other player have a responsibility to protect the field. This sometimes requires you to get in an awkward and adversarial situation. The Russian proverb popularized in America by President Ronald Reagan of "Trust, but verify" is a great thought to keep in mind. "If you see something, say something" makes good sense, too.
If it's true that the Anchor Bay, L'Anse Creuse and Fraser teams colluded to get into the state championship, the Michigan State High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) should throw the book at the coaches and ban the teams from postseason play for a couple years at the very least. This might be the worst example of cheating in golf that I've heard of.