A Gentlemen’s Game

There are different levels of cheating, some pose problems others are just an annoyance.

Thrash TalkWhen it comes to the rules, golf is really unlike any other sport. What other sport can you name in which you call penalties on yourself? Most sports have a referee and it is almost an art to cheat until you are caught. Just watch any NFL game and watch the linemen battle it out and likely you will see holding or some other mischievous activity on every play. The NBA is the same way with all the pushing and elbowing. As long as the ref doesn’t call it, you are free to do it, even encouraged. In golf, if you are in the trees and your ball moves while you are addressing it, it’s on you to call the penalty on yourself.

This brings me to what I really want to discuss, which is cheating. In golf, cheating is typically done as subtly as possible. There is a decent amount of blatant cheating which I will discuss, as well as numerous cases of just not knowing the rules. I am forced to admit that the rules of golf can at times be confusing for the average player and this can lead to some heated discussions.

The first brand of cheating to discuss is sandbagging. This is almost always a blatant form of cheating because it takes some work on the part of the golfer to accomplish it. (I could write a completely separate article on this topic and maybe one day I will.)

At my golf club, sandbagging is rampant. The counterargument is that some guys just play better in tournaments, but the USGA has charts for that. The thing is, it’s really not easy to call someone out on sandbagging. You have to call them a cheater, and unless you play with them for all of their rounds and then watch them post a higher score, it is ridiculously hard to prove. So sadly, this form of cheating is not going to stop any time soon. Usually what happens is the golf club gets fed up with this golfer sandbagging and throws them out. At my golf club we complain about the guys doing it, but continue to let them win all of the tournaments.

Some golfers do the opposite and adopt vanity handicaps, the reverse of sandbagging. This typically only draws anger when a vanity capper is put on your team. If it is an individual tournament then most people do not mind if this golfer shoots 10 over his handicap because he is only hurting himself. We have one of these guys at our club. He desperately wants to be a six handicap but in reality he is 16 and not even a very good 16.

Then there are the more traditional methods of cheating.

For example, the first that springs to mind is gimme putts. Typically, this guy is on your team and at the start of the round and is giving realistic length putts to everyone. By the end of the round, though, he’s giving three to four footers to everyone, including himself. Gimme putts are such a source of frustration in our regular group that we have banished them. We now putt everything out.

Another sly way of cheating is to pick up the ball to identify it. Historically when guys do this, the ball rarely gets put down in the same place. Very often the ball isn’t marked either. This is a pretty small infraction but done over the course of the round and it can start to make a difference in the score.

Young Boy Cheating at Golf

There are also cases where a competitor may try and take a very fortuitous drop which benefits him. This comes up all the time in our group because we have a few fences that protect the next tee and very often there are trees on one side but not the other and in rare cases the nearest point is on the other side of the fence giving the golfer a clear shot to the green. This also can lead to some very heated arguments.

Also in the minor category is touching the line with your putter, this is done usually by guys playing in a scramble (which don’t really follow the Rules of Golf to begin with) or in a best-ball match. It’s pretty close to harmless, but is nonetheless in violation of the rules.

There are numerous infractions in this category, but the one that my friend so often catches is the provisional ball rule. If you think your ball went out of play or is lost you must declare on the tee that you are hitting a provisional ball. All too often this declaration is simply not made, and when this happens the provisional becomes your real ball no matter if you find your original. If you pay attention to this rule likely you will notice that less than 25% of the time your competitors will not call out that the second ball is provisional.

I do not believe that cheating is an enormous problem in golf. Sandbagging is a real problem, and I think the USGA is trying their best to catch golfers who do this, but in the end it is typically peer pressure that helps to solve it. Most of the other events are small in size and do not have such a big affect on the final outcome. In the end though the policing has to be done by the golfer himself.

Your Take
I’m curious to hear, in the comments below, what forms of cheating you see most often or which frustrate you the most. Let’s hear ’em!

9 thoughts on “A Gentlemen’s Game”

  1. While there may be many forms of cheating, I tend to look at it another way…..there are 3 different types of people.

    1. The golfer who genuinely attempts to play by the rules. He may make a mistake along the way, but it’s inadvertent and out of ignorance, never intentional. Once he learns of his error, he corrects it or suffers the penalty and learns from it going forward.

    2. The golfer who enjoys hitting a ball around the golf course with a set of clubs, but only plays by the rules that suit him at any given point in time. He’ll take a mulligan, rake in a 3 foot putt, roll the ball out of a divot in the fairway or a footprint in a bunker. He makes no attempt to hide his infractions, because he’s out to have fun and isn’t trying to gain any competitive advantage over someone else. His transgressions don’t affect his enjoyment of the game, nor even mine if I’m playing with him because they don’t affect me at all.

    3. The cheater. This is someone who breaks the rules with the intent to gain an advantage over other players in order to win…..whether a tournament or a friendly match. He’s doing so surreptitiously so as not to be found out. He’s no better than a thief and I’ll avoid his company at all costs…..both on and off the course.

  2. I was just actually thinking about the “golf being the only game without a ref” about 10 mins before I read this post. The only type of cheating that I will ever put up with or do is an occasional gimme putt like if I had a putt from 30 feet that stopped no further away than a foot from the hole.

  3. It seems like there are techniques or procedures that can reduce the impact of sandbagging but they don’t seem to be used frequently. I found information on the “Pope of Slope” website interesting and explains procedures used by the USGA to detect and address sandbagging.

    Also, can’t scoring systems like the Callaway system be used to minimize sandbagging and create a more even playing field? It’s a little complicated, but a spreadsheet could be created to quickly convert tournament scores to an tournament-specific Callaway handicapped score. [http://www.leaderboard.com/calloway.htm]

    Do clubs simply not want to address members who are not following the rules? It seems that everyone knows that handicaps are manipulated but it seems sanctimonious to rely on something other than handicaps or openly say that handicaps are manipulated. After all, golf is A Gentleman’s Game, and it’s easier for tournament organizers to shrug their shoulders and take a “that’s just the way it is” attitude.

    Refuse to play in tournaments with a history of sandbagging. Take a “fool me once – shame on you, but fool me twice – shame on me” attitude.

  4. I can see that everyone feels very strongly about “cheating, sand bagging, vanity handicaps…etc” I have a slightly different view about those who choose to not follow the rules.

    If you are in a tournament, follow the rules and call the sand baggers / cheaters on their less than honest golfing techniques.

    The rest of the time, for those who are out to swing the clubs once a week, let them have their fun! Golf is really a game that can be enjoyed anyway one likes. Outside of official tournaments….let them have their fun.

  5. You left me a little confused on the provisional as I am fairly new to golf. Lets say I hit my first tee shot and it may have gone OB. I hit a provisional. If I find my original ball I pick up my second shot and pretend like I never had to. If I don’t find my original I play my second ball and am now on my third shot correct? The way I read your article it seemed as though once you hit the provisional ball that is your ball now regardless and on your third shot but some people call it their first?

  6. @Jimdangles: Before you hit your provisional you MUST declare that you are hitting a provisional ball. If you do so, then if you find the original you play it (your next stroke will be stroke #2) and pickup the provisional. If you can’t find the original ball you play the provisional (your next stroke is stroke #4 – 1 strokes for original shot, 1 stroke penalty, 1 stroke for hitting the provisional ball). If you do not declare that you are hitting a provisional and hit another ball that ball is now in play – it is not a provisional because it was not declared a provisional prior to being hit.

    The whole sandbagging thing drives me crazy. What kind of scum turns in high scores all season to inflate their handicap so they can “win” their club championship? To me this is worse than the outright cheater who tries to save a stroke here and there. The sandbagger has purposely cheated multiple times in order to inflate his handicap to get some big payoff at a tournament.

    I think the way to curb sandbagging is to have a “tournament handicap” that is comprised solely of tournament scores. Say a -16 handicap plays a tournament and shoots 72 – 74 gross. The next tournament he plays in his “tournament handicap” is based on his tournament scores so he’s now about a -1. The only way to game the system would be to purposely play poorly in multiple tournaments to raise your handicap.

  7. @ Jimdangles

    What the rule states is that you must “declare” that your 2nd ball is your provisional… before you hit it. If you do not physically say “I’m hitting a provisional” then it is deemed to be your 3rd shot from the box.

  8. Not being a tournament golfer, and therefore not having had this affect me directly, I would have to agree that sandbagging is the most egregious thing mentioned here. There are statistical methods that could be applied besides keeping separate handicaps for tourney vs. regular play. Perhaps the tournament/league scores can be weighted in a way that blunts the other scores enough that someone would have to be blatantly inflating their scores to affect the overall. It would be interesting to present a statistics class with data and the problem and see what they come up with.

  9. I think you covered the violations I see during the course of a normal round of one team against another, except for the “poor lie” rule. We play in a drought area and guys will take their ball off dirt and place it on top of a blade of grass for some “cushion.”

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