One of the problems with assessing fairness in sports is that the definition of “cheating” varies according to what game is involved. In some sports, anything not specifically outlawed is fair. In other sports, the “spirit of sportsmanship” takes precedence over mere rules. Golf is one of the latter, a sport that still regards itself as refined and gentlemanly. Now a controversy has erupted that requires an assessment of whether one can cheat in professional golf while obeying the rules.
PGA player Scott McCarron has accused PGA star Phil Mickelson of cheating for using a wedge with a banned design. The wedge in question is a Ping-Eye 2 wedge that has square grooves, and the PGA banned such grooves in favor of V-shaped grooves. The Ping people sued over this, and managed to wrangle a settlement out of the PGA that allowed their square-groove wedges to be used on the tour (though not in international tournaments) if they were manufactured before 1990. In other words, the old wedges were “grandfathered” in: once the 20 year-old clubs are gone, no more square grooves.
Mickelson apparently cruises E-bay, likes the square grooved wedges, found some and uses them. There aren’t enough to go around, however, so he gets the advantage of the (supposedly) superior grooves while younger players have no choice but to play with the PGA-approved wedges. Is that fair?
It isn’t fair. It just doesn’t break any rules. The situation is reminiscent of Major League Baseball’s banning of the spitball in 1920. The spitball specialists were still allowed to continue throwing the pitch until they retired, though nobody else was. There is a difference, though: those pitchers had no choice but to keep throwing spitballs, because it was the only way they could continue to play. Mickelson certainly doesn’t have to use the legal wedges with the illegal grooves.
It may be due to a loophole in the rules, but the Ping wedges are still legal in PGA events, and Mickelson isn’t concealing the fact that he uses them. Without deception or a rules violation, using the Ping wedges can’t be called cheating. McCarron is wrong, and he was wrong to use that term to attack a fellow golfer. Still, using the wedges when other players cannot is unfair.
Even Mickelson agrees that the exception to the ban is unfair. “But it’s not up to me or any other player to interpret what the rule is or the spirit of the rule,” he told reporters. “I understand black and white. And I think that myself or any other player is allowed to play those clubs because they’re approved — end of story.”
Sorry, Phil. That’s a rationalization. You have said allowing the banned wedges is “terrible,” and that suggests that you know it gives a player using them an unfair advantage. You’re not the only player who has one—John Daly and Dean Wilson also use the square groove Pings—but there aren’t enough to supply all your competitors. Nobody’s forcing you to take full advantage of a bad rule. Good sportsmanship dictates that you voluntarily use thefully legal V-grooved wedges. You don’t have to do it; it wouldn’t be cheating to keep exploiting the loophole in the rules. It’s just unfair to your fellow golfers.
In golf, the gentleman’s game, that’s bad enough. As a leader on the tour, Phil Mickelson has a special responsibility to preserve and respect golfs’ traditions and culture. He can do that by giving up his Pings.