He probably wasn't going to win anyway. Let's get that part out of the way.
Just to extend his sudden-death playoff another hole at last year's Verizon Heritage Classic, Brian Davis was going to have to run in a 35-foot, downhill putt for par, or hope somehow that Jim Furyk would three-putt from the just off the green. Long odds, to say the least, for this fairly anonymous Englishman who has played on the PGA Tour since 2007.
But what Davis did in defeat last April 18 in Hilton Head resonated with people across the country and around the world.
"Maybe because we were coming off things like the Bernard Madoff scandal and some other acts of dishonesty," Davis wondered aloud. "Maybe because the news is filled with so many negative stories. There wasn't much good going on at the time. So, what I did became a feel-good story for a lot of people."
Before he even walked to the green to line up that long putt, Davis called over rules official Slugger White and asked him to review the video of his previous shot, which he played out of a hazard.
"I didn't feel anything," Davis said. "But I saw something."
Indeed, he did. Though it was invisible to the naked eye, undetectable on the first replay and still impossible to see in slow motion, when viewed in super slo-mo, Davis ticked a reed in his backswing. Since a reed is what's known as a "loose impediment," it can therefore not be moved. It's Rule 23 in the USGA's Rules of Golf and Davis knew it. A two-stroke penalty for something no one would have ever seen. Game over.
The Price You Pay
"Friends said to me, 'That penalty cost you $400,000,'" Davis recalls. "And I said, 'No it probably cost me more like $2 million.' A win would've gotten me into the Masters. My endorsement bonuses would have kicked in. A win opens so many doors. All of the sudden, I'd be in the world events like the SBS, with guaranteed money. There's no price you could put on it. It cost me $400,000 on that Sunday. But how much did it really cost me? Who knows? Winning at the Verizon Heritage would've been awesome. Probably the hardest thing is knowing how much a win can possibly change your career."
Davis then sighs, and rattles off a few things off the top of his head.
"I mean, everyone knows Top 125 and you keep your tour card," he said. "But Top 70 gets you in all the invitationals. Mr. Palmer's tournament. Mr. Nicklaus' tournament. Great tournaments with limited fields. Top 50 and you're guaranteed to play in every pro-am. That's important to me because it means I can spend Monday and Tuesday with my family. Because the guys who are not in the pro am can't play a practice round on Wednesday. They have to play Tuesday. That's how important your spot on the money list is."
"But it's not so important ," Davis said, "That you cheat to achieve it. Golfers are expected to police themselves. It's in the gentleman's tradition of the game. It's what makes our sport unique. I'm a fan of the Arsenal Football Club and my father-in-law is Ray Clemence, who was a goalkeeper for Liverpool and England, so I know it's not the same in other sports. I'm not happy when a player goes down in the box after barely being brushed by a defender, but I know it's part of football's gamesmanship. It's not the same in golf. Even for anyone to think you're a cheater is horrible."
Getting Back To It
He finished last season 46th on the PGA Tour money list with $1,640,516, and is currently 93rd, but expect Davis to hear thunderous applause from the galleries this week, when the tour returns to Hilton Head. Sure, players call penalties on themselves all the time, or at least call over rules officials to inquire about things. This time it really caught the public's eye.
Davis would never say it, but the fact that his act of honor occurred a week after Tiger Woods returned to golf at the Masters, after six months of scandal, was a factor. It was high time for an act of decency, humility and honesty. And Davis came through.
"I had just birdied the 72nd hole to force the playoff and the adrenaline was really pumping." he remembered. "I went back to the 18th tee with Jim and hit a very good tee shot. I decided to go for the pin, just like I did in regulation, but this time I pulled it by five yards. The ball hit the bank short of the green and went, literally, onto the beach. I knew there was no water down there because of the tides at that time of day. That's why I went for the pin. I knew there was sand down there and I'd probably have a shot even if I missed the green. The problem was not the sand. The problem was the many reeds that were scattered about, having been washed to the shore."
Before Davis went down to the ball, White, the PGA rules official said, "Just be careful not to touch anything. It's a hazard."
White wanted to make sure Davis knew that the TV cameras would be following him closely.
"He was just reminding us," Davis said, "and letting us know he was there in case I want a ruling."
Davis went down into the hazard, saw the ball in the sand, and his initial thoughts were, "I have a lie, I can play it." So he went back to have a look at the green, to weigh his decision more carefully. "Jim's ball was on the back of the green. He was looking at a difficult two-putt for par. I thought, in the worst-case scenario, I'll hit it 30 feet past, but at least have a putt for par. If I take the drop, I have to chip in for four. Even with the club length, I'd have been dropping on the side of a bank, and there's no telling the lie I'd get. The ball could bounce anywhere. So that's bringing luck into it. So my thinking was, I'd rather take my chances and play this shot off the hard, wet, compact sand. I thought I could hit a semi-explosion shot, hit behind the ball, maybe even get some spin on it."
There were a couple of little reeds behind the ball. Nothing much. And then there were a bunch of reeds, behind the ball and to the right. And there was one reed sticking out. And it was laying low in the sand, a couple of feet behind the ball.
"I knew I had to pick my club quickly and drop it to the ball," Davis said. "I didn't think it would be a problem. I've got that shot. I told my caddie the reed wasn't an issue. I said let's go for it. Like any athlete, I now got myself 100 percent focused on what I had to do. You block out the crowd, the cameras, everything. You commit to the shot. Then I hit it."
It was not a great shot, but it was not awful either. It came out a little hot and rolled to about 35 feet from the hole. But Davis immediately sensed something happened in the middle of his swing.
"When I took the club back, even though I was focused on the ball, I thought saw something move," Davis said. "It was windy, the reeds were waving. It was not still. But I was pretty sure I thought I saw a reed move. I thought. I did not know.
So Davis said, "Slugger come over." He said, "I didn't feel anything, but I'm pretty sure that I saw that one reed move. I could be wrong because of the wind."
So White said they'd go to the TV and watch a replay. He called the TV crew on the radio. "And straight away, he said, 'No it's OK,'" Davis said.
But then, they watched it in super slo-mo.
"And what I thought I saw, is exactly what happened. I didn't feel it, but the sole of the club brushed the reed. In real time, it's impossible to see it. A lot of people have asked, 'How the hell did you see that? It barely moved.' And I tell them, 'I didn't see it. I 'thought' I saw something move.' It could've been sand. But I thought I saw something move and I wanted to check. Because that's what we do. That's what golfers do."
Still, White said, "Wait a minute, if that reed's attached to the ground you're okay, because you continued to swing." So he tugged on it. And it came out. And that was it.
The Best Policy
"I was putting for a six ... and Jim had already putted to six feet," Davis recollected. "He had three putts to win, so I said I just want to concede the hole, and Slugger said they needed me to finish for TV. I said, 'I really want to get in my car and drive home.' I knocked the putt down toward the hole and said, "Jim, please finish." He didn't even take a practice stroke. Got the ball in the hole, looked at me and said, 'I'm sorry, that sucks.' I was not happy. I wanted to win. But the rules are the rules and that's the way it's always been. It wasn't a new rule, like the one that DQ'd Jim later on in the season, when his alarm clock didn't go off and he missed a pro-am at the Barclay's last August."
After doing his interviews, Davis got in his car to drive home five hours to Orlando. He was expecting a lot of messages from friends and family, but got none.
"I was thinking everyone was afraid to call or text me because of what happened." Davis said. "I felt all alone."
But about 20 minutes down the road, Davis decided it was time to call his wife and kids. And as soon as he started dialing, his phone started pinging.
"Ping! Ping! Ping!" Davis said with a laugh. "Going crazy for two minutes. Hundreds of messages. Friends, family, folks from my club in England. They all felt horrible for what had happened. But when I got my wife on the phone, she said, 'We've got a bigger problem. The kids are in tears.' I'd promised them that when I finally get a win on this tour, we'd get a boat. So when I holed the putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff, they were thinking boat. Now, they were crushed. Yes, it was back to reality for me in a hurry."
When Davis got home that night, his agent, a former European Tour player named Gary Evans said, "Get ready, you're going to get a lot of coverage for this."
At the time Davis didn't believe it, but his agent was right. He spent the next two days doing wall-to-wall interviews. And all he kept hearing was what he did was great for the game. About two or three days after he left Hilton Head, Davis started to get messages from CEO's of companies, just to tell him, "Well done."
Then a schoolteacher from Texas, who said she knew nothing about golf, wrote to tell him she used him as an example of honesty. She said, "I'm sorry, I don't know who you are. But I like what you did." The week of the Colonial in Fort Worth, the teacher brought her class out to meet Davis in person.
"And when folks asked me if I ever thought about not calling it on myself. Well, no that never crossed my mind," Davis said. "I wouldn't have been able to live with myself. If I'd won and had that doubt? I'm not sure I'd have been able to walk through a PGA clubhouse without feeling ill. There's no worse black mark on a player than 'cheater.'"
"I'd broken a rule that's in the book for a reason. Without the rule, what would stop a player from sweeping his club back and knocking all the reeds away so he could have a clear swing at the ball? That's not what I did, but that's why the rule is there. I'm not the first player who's called a penalty on himself that was costly."
In fact, later in the 2010 season, Ian Poulter called a penalty on himself during a playoff with Robert Karlson in Dubai, for dropping his ball -- unintentionally -- on to his ball marker.
One of the messages Davis got after the incident came from J.P. Hayes, who DQ'd himself out of a job on the tour during 2008 PGA Tour Qualifying School. The night after a round at Q-school, Hayes was looking through his balls and realized he'd used an illegal golf ball. In the privacy of his own hotel room, even though he could've kept it a secret to the rest of the world, he DQ'd himself.
"There are stand-up guys on our tour," Davis said. "Of course, I'd be naïve to think no one has gotten away with cheating out here. It's happened, but it's rare. Honoring the rules is taught at a young age in golf. The game is full of rules, including the way you are supposed to dress and behave. To be truthful, I probably know about 80 percent of the rules. You get one or two violations a year where all the players scratch their heads. Rules get amended from time to time and it's a challenge to keep up. I'm not perfect in that regard. But I can sleep at night knowing I am honest."
And remembered for it.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.