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Golf Prides Itself On Character, And This Time, Europe Fell Short

When U.S. rookie Alison Lee picked up her putt on 17 without the nod from Europe's Suzann Pettersen and Charley Hull, controversy erupted. David Cannon/Getty Images

Golf likes to pat itself on the back for its ethos, for the way players call penalties on themselves when no one but them has seen an infraction. The game is self-policed, the thinking goes, because its prevailing core is more pure than that of many other sports where you try to get away with what you can.

No one pushes off and hopes the back judge doesn't see. No one is scuffing or wetting a baseball before winding up. No one is getting shot up with something he shouldn't before pedaling up a mountain.

This pristine stream vs. polluted river argument isn't without merit. Golf has a lot going for it in the character department. Players have lost tournaments because they admitted a ball moved a fraction of an inch, and kept foes from losing them because they reminded them to move a ball back into position. It's part of the game, a wonderful part.

But some golfers have also jingled coins, nudged a shiny white shoe into the peripheral vision of an opponent or broken coveted silence with a well-timed cough.

Sometimes, in a pass-fail test of the spirit of golf that so many admire and so many live up to, they fail.

That was what happened Sunday morning at the Solheim Cup, on the 17th green of St. Leon-Rot Golf Club in Germany, where a putt was missed and someone missed the point.

Alison Lee missed the putt. Suzann Pettersen -- and to a large degree, her European captain, Carin Koch -- subsequently missed the point.

About golf and about sportsmanship, about doing the right thing, about seeing the gray leeway of judgment instead of the black-and-white of law. They didn't shout on someone's backswing, but in its win-at-all-costs appearance, it was figurative mumbling.

Paired with Brittany Lincicome in a four-ball match against Pettersen and Charley Hull, Lee ran an 8-foot birdie putt about 18 inches past the cup. Lee said she heard someone say the putt was conceded, which would have sent the match to the 18th hole all square.

Lee's ball had barely stopped when Hull, standing on the side of the green not far from Lee, began walking briskly toward the 18th tee. Hull's subsequent tears after Pettersen said the Europeans hadn't given Lee the short par putt, spoke volumes that her quick steps toward No. 18 meant she thought the putt was good, even if she hadn't said so to her American opponent.

The Rules of Golf stipulate that a concession has to be clearly stated. Pettersen told the walking official that the Europeans hadn't done that. Unable to obtain evidence to contradict her, he confirmed the loss of hole. Europe won the match and took a commanding 10-6 lead into singles play. That the tough-minded Americans, with no small amount of karma on their side, staged a monster comeback later Sunday and won 14 ½-13 ½ will soften the impact of what happened on the 17th green.

But no one will soon forget it, because it left a bad taste.

"Disgusted," said Laura Davies, a longtime European Solheim stalwart who was analyzing these matches for Sky Sports. "We have got our best player, Charley Hull, who has just won a point and she's in a flood of tears. That tells you the wrong thing was done. I know [Pettersen] is angry and justifying everything, but she has let herself down, and she has certainly let her team down. I am so glad I am not on that team this time."

To be clear, Lee, playing in her first Solheim Cup, made a mistake. Putts of the length she left herself aren't so easy under that kind of pressure. Lincicome seemed to try to warn her partner to make sure the putt had been conceded before picking it up. Being aware of the situation, even under tense circumstances, is part of being an elite athlete. Lee should have made certain the putt had been conceded.

Pettersen, who has long been known for her intensity as much as her talent, didn't break the rules. Neither did Koch. What they did -- in using the rules to their full advantage -- wasn't much different from what the Americans did during a messy chapter of the 2000 Solheim Cup at Loch Lomond in Scotland.

As was the case in Germany, it was a weather-delayed four-ball match on a Sunday morning. After Annika Sorenstam chipped in on the 13th hole, American Kelly Robbins believed that she, not the Swede, had been away, meaning Sorenstam played out of turn. A measurement was made, and Robbins was found to have been away by about a yard.

American captain Pat Bradley, every bit the competitor in her day as Pettersen is now, ordered Sorenstam to replay the shot. The rules allowed for that. Sorenstam missed the shot. The U.S. won the match, but Europe won the Solheim Cup.

"The rules and the spirit are almost one," Bradley said later that day, explaining her decision. "We played within the rules of the game, and when the rules are upheld, the spirit is upheld."

Sorenstam, an assistant captain on this year's European team, was outraged at the time, her opinion much like that of the critics of what Pettersen and Koch did Sunday.

"The whole [European] team is disgusted," Sorenstam said in 2000. "We are so disappointed that [the U.S. team] can do something like this. We all ask ourselves: Is this how badly they want to win the cup?"

After Lee made her mistake and the Europeans weren't in a forgiving mood, it was the American team posing that same question. To a television microphone, American captain Juli Inkster called it "b.s." but could have used more syllables.

Others -- even those who respect golf's code -- were also wondering: Just because something is legal doesn't necessarily make it justified. There are times when there isn't a sliver of difference between golf and other sports, and this was one of them.