Golf's honor code limits 'cheating' incidents

More than 80 years after Bobby Jones' ball barely budged, the story is still told to show golf is a game of honor. The great amateur was competing in the 1925 U. S. Open when, unbeknownst to anyone but himself, Jones' ball moved ever so slightly as he addressed it in the rough.

There were no referees to call a foul, no officials to slap him with a penalty. Jones' playing companion, Walter Hagen, didn't see the infraction, nor did his caddie or any spectators. The tournament title hung in the balance, but when the round was completed, it soon became known that Jones had assessed himself a 1-stroke penalty.

The ball moving did not help him any, nor was it any great violation. But it happened, and those are the rules. So Jones thought nothing of it. That stroke cost him outright victory, and he then went on to lose a 36-hole playoff to Willie Macfarlane.

Afterward, when sportswriter O.B. Keeler sought to applaud Jones for his sportsmanship, the golfer implored him not to even write about the incident.

"You might as well praise me for not robbing banks," Jones said.

In golf, the rulebook is sacrosanct -- even if some of the rules seem peculiar and violating them would not offer an advantage.

And what makes this all the more important to golfers is that they typically are left to police themselves. Only at the highest level of competition -- major championships, for example -- is there a rules official nearby, and even then not always with every group.

So it becomes the players' job to enforce the rules themselves, many times at their own expense.

"There's that old saying that if you're not cheating, you're not trying," said the LPGA Tour's Meg Mallon, a four-time major championship winner. "That applies in every other sport, but not ours. That's just the way the game is. It started as a gentleman's game, and it has kept going. You learn that it is a badge of honor to play the rules and call penalties on yourself. It is a game of integrity."

Mallon knows all too well. One year at the LPGA event in Toledo, Ohio, she was leading the tournament through one round. But in the second round, she had an instance when her ball hung on the lip of the cup, vacillating. "I thought if the ball was still moving, the 10-second rule didn't apply," Mallon said.

This was particularly difficult because Mallon found herself in a quandary. If you strike a moving ball, that's a penalty. If you wait more than 10 seconds to play a ball that is on the edge of the cup, it's a penalty. She waited ... and the ball dropped in!

Unfortunately, it wasn't until after she signed her scorecard that Mallon got to wondering about the rule. She consulted a rules official the next morning. They viewed tape of the incident, and 19 seconds had passed. She should have assessed herself a 1-stroke penalty. Because she didn't, Mallon signed an incorrect scorecard. And when players sign for a score that is lower than what they shot, it means disqualification.

"So as the leaders are going out, they're taking my name off the leaderboard," said Mallon, who recalled another incident, the time when she dropped her golf ball on her coin, which was used as a marker. Again, nobody saw it.

"But it's a 1-stroke penalty," Mallon said. "And stuff happens all the time. You can't live with yourself if you don't call it. I just couldn't play feeling that way."

Earlier this year at the Honda Classic, Mark Wilson called a penalty on himself in the second round when his caddie, Chris Jones, inadvertently barked out the loft on a hybrid club Wilson had just used on a par-3 hole. Wilson didn't think anything of it at the time, but as they walked to the green, he realized his caddie might have been in violation of Rule 8-1 on giving advice to another player.

He summoned a rules official and was told it was a 2-stroke penalty.

Had Wilson said nothing, it was unlikely anyone would have thought about the rules breach. It turned a round of 64 into a 66. And it didn't come to light until two days later, when Wilson found himself in contention. He ended up winning the tournament in a sudden-death playoff that would not have been necessary without the penalty.

"I don't think I would be here if I had not called it on myself because I would be thinking about it, and if I had not called it on myself, every time I look at the trophy, it would be tarnished," Wilson said.

Wilson violated a rule, but that doesn't mean a player could not look in his bag to get the same information. And although giving advice is against the rules, there seems to be a code among caddies to dispense such information through hand signals.

There are some strange rules in golf, but not giving advice has solid ground. If one player has a huge lead over another, what would stop him from giving advice to help the other out? That would not be fair to the rest of the field. That is also why players are supposed to act as rules officials, to protect not just themselves but everyone else competing.

"I don't think there's a guy I know on tour who wouldn't have done the same thing," PGA Tour player Paul Goydos said of Wilson. "That's just the way the game is. I saw Mark on TV, and he didn't even want to talk about it. I like how he handled it; he didn't want to come off as a martyr."

Through the years, there have been several examples of rules violations a player called on himself. At the 1983 British Open, Hale Irwin whiffed on a 3-inch putt at the 14th hole of the final round, costing himself a spot in a playoff with Tom Watson. It wasn't a penalty, per se, but Irwin counted the stroke.

At the 2001 British Open, Ian Woosnam was disgusted to learn on the second tee of the final round that an extra driver was in his bag. Had he said nothing, nobody would have known he was in violation of the 14-club limit. But Woosnam immediately chucked the driver -- and said a few choice words to his caddie -- then added 2 strokes to his score.

At the 1996 Greater Hartford Open, Greg Norman took himself out of the tournament for the most technical of reasons: He was using a nonconforming golf ball. Actually, the ball was fine, but the side stamp had not yet been approved. It gave him absolutely no advantage, but Norman did the only thing he knew to do, which was to disqualify himself.

This is not to say there have not been incidents or suspicions in golf. The most high-profile occasion in recent times concerns Vijay Singh and an alleged incident that occurred in 1985 when he was playing the Asian Tour. After the second round of the Indonesian Open, the tournament director ruled that Singh had improved his score by 1 stroke after signing his scorecard. He was disqualified and later indefinitely suspended from the tour.

Singh was forced to take a club pro job in Borneo and eventually made his way to Europe. He has long maintained there was a "misunderstanding" and has expressed frustration that those events dogged him for many years. Singh didn't make it to the PGA Tour until age 30 in 1993, but he managed to overcome the fallout and become a Hall of Famer.

The notion that golfers are noble and call penalties on themselves is one of the reasons PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem cited for his reluctance to institute a drug-testing policy. The theory goes that players know not to kick their ball in the rough, so they wouldn't take anything illegal.

However, what is illegal? That is why there has been a call for a ban on steroids and any performance-enhancing substances.

Jones likely would have been in favor of that, just so all players knew where they stood.

According to Sidney Matthew, who has written several books about Jones, the great amateur actually called penalties on himself four times in competition, with the 1925 incident at Worcester Country Club near Boston the most famous. A year later, he called a penalty on himself at the U.S. Open when his ball rolled on the green as he addressed it.

That didn't keep him from overcoming a 4-shot deficit in the final round.

As Jones said: "When you cheat in golf, the only person you're cheating is yourself."

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.