Aspiring professional golfers can’t just join the PGA tour. They have to qualify by completing and passing PGA school. Blayne Barber is one such golfer, and his dreams of winning tournaments and cash prizes will have to wait at least another year, if they are realized at all. He washed out this year. The way he washed out, however, is remarkable, and shows that if he does make it into the PGA ranks, Barber will be a credit to his sport.
Indeed, most pro golfers are credits to their sport, because golf has managed to hold the line against the increasing cultural acceptance of poor sportsmanship better than any of our professional pastimes, with tennis a distant second, and third place too far away to see without binoculars. This is a sport where the honor system is mandatory. One reason the tradition of self-regulation has persisted in golf may be because cheating in contests is so easy, and because there are so many ways to do it. Players find their own balls, and write down their own scores. Anyone who has seen James Bond and Auric Goldfinger take turns cheating each other in the famous grudge match from the movie knows that amateur golf can be cutthroat and nasty. The pros have built a culture that requires exemplary conduct.
Few would be this exemplary, however. When he was competing in the first stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School, Barber took a one-shot penalty stroke when he thought his club moved a leaf in a bunker, even though his caddie said he never saw the leaf move. Barber still applied the penalty stroke to his score. That was honorable. Then Barber discovered, well after the tournament, that the correct penalty was two shots. Even with the two-shot penalty, his score was good enough to qualify for the second stage of the PGA Tour qualification process. But by turning in and signing an incorrect score card, Barber would face disqualification…if he reported his mistake.
“I continued to pray about it and think about it, and I just did not have any peace about it,” Barber told reporters. “I knew I needed to do the right thing. I knew it was going to be disqualification. Doing the right thing and doing what I know is right in my heart and in my conscience is more important than short-term success.” He reported his error, and was disqualified.
Barber had many tempting rationalizations available to him, ripe for the picking. He had qualified for the next stage fair and square; even if he had taken the extra stroke penalty, he was well within the cut-off: disqualification would be unjust in this case, and validated his silence. He made a good faith effort to follow the rules: this wasn’t his fault. Most golfers wouldn’t have taken even one stroke penalty, if their caddies insisted that the leaf hadn’t moved: everybody does it. He had always been an ethical and honest golfer: surely Barber deserved a break this one time….and he’d never do it again. Besides, Barber hadn’t done anything truly wrong: this was a trivial infraction. The PGA wanted the best golfers on the tour, so making sure that he made the grade rather than an inferior golfer was best for everyone: it was all for a good cause. The two-stroke penalty was excessive anyway: his career shouldn’t be blocked because of a stupid rule. Not reporting a technical violation with an excessive penalty reasonable, given the reward: the ends justify the means. Nobody would know. No harm, no foul. It wasn’t as if he was really cheating, and there were a lot worse things he could do.
Barber picked none of the rationalizations, but instead chose to exemplify ethical conduct. He reported his error and accepted both responsibility and the consequences. He did the right thing when he didn’t have to, when nobody would have known, and when most would say that a decision to stay silent was reasonable. Blayne Barber demonstrated that he has learned the great lesson of ethical living, that once you start giving yourself reasons to behave unethically, it becomes a habit, and then a life-style.
The PGA is certainly within the bounds of fairness to follow through with Barber’s disqualification. I think it should waive strict application of the rules in this unusual case. Barber had already shown that he possessed the skills necessary to move on to the next level, and his courageous display of honesty against self-interest proves that he also possesses the values and the character to be a professional golfer. Rewarding him would send the right message about the sport and the standards of conduct it wants to encourage.
Graphic: Golf Week
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