In an increasingly cynical world where truth has become a moving target and honesty a devalued commodity, whether it involves weapons of mass destruction or cheating in sports, it has become all too easy to scoff when the positive values of golf are discussed. Is it a game of perfect virtue? Absolutely not. But if there is anything we should take away from Jose Canseco's new book, "Juiced," it is a renewed pride in the relative purity of golf. While Canseco has called into question the role steroids may have played in some of baseball's most cherished records, it is unlikely that in 20 years we will see the book, "How I Cheated to Win the Masters."
Does cheating occur in golf? Without question. It might involve taking a bad drop, not calling a penalty on yourself when only you know your ball moved or flat out "miscounting" the number of strokes you took on a hole. You always know you are in for an accounting adventure when you ask a playing partner what he or she had and the person says, "Let me see ... " and starts pointing down the fairway and adding up the strokes. On the recreational level, such infractions are barely more than desperate attempts to magically make yourself into a better player than you really are. In those cases, the only loser is the player.
The questionable drop also occurs in the professional game, as does the trick where a player takes out a 3-wood as if he is going to use it from the rough but merely grounds it behind the ball to flatten the grass -- then switches to a long iron and strikes the ball cleanly. There also have been incidents of creative ball-marking on greens; non-conforming drivers have undoubtedly made it into play; and, in not-so-long-ago times, there were whispers of players who used hot golf balls. But there also have been players who disqualified themselves when they discovered they had played a ball yet to be approved by the USGA. While it is a sad commentary on our times that we have to use the phrase "relative honesty," within that definition, golf is the unquestioned winner.
One of the strengths of The First Tee, a program that brings young people into the game, is its focus on teaching life skills. One of those skills is honesty. And whether or not cheating creeps into the game of golf, it is still a sport where no one is taught how to cheat. No one takes pride in the golf equivalent of getting away with a hold or a push the referee fails to see or learning how to scuff a baseball. The questions raised by Canseco are these: Was baseball's single-season home run record broken by someone who cheated? And will the career mark someday be held by a player similarly tainted?
There are players in the Baseball Hall of Fame with reputations for cheating, just as there are Hall of Famers in football and basketball who were known as cheap-shot artists. Just as certainly, there are major championship winners in golf about whom it has been whispered that they stretched the rules. But none achieved greatness purely because of breaking the game's laws. The game remains as close to honorable as we have in a world where honor and honesty have become subjects of political spin and not personal value.
There is the joke about the guy who says, "My brother is crazy. He thinks he's a chicken." His friend asks: "Why don't you take him to a psychiatrist?" The first man answers, "I can't. We need the eggs." Is golf a game of perfect values? No. There are times when the rules are stretched and even broken. But in the world in which we live, it is the best we have. Hey, we need the eggs.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.