Ethics Hero: Golfer Blayne Barber

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.


Pointer: tgt

Facts: ESPN

Graphic: Golf Week

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

15 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Golfer Blayne Barber

  1. 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.

    I’d even go so far as to say that not waiving the rule in this case would be unprofessional, bad sportsmanship, and bringing the game into disrepute.

    Mr Barber of course merely did the only thing he could have done.

    I’d make a terrible legal client – I’d never plead guilty or take a plea bargain for something I hadn’t done, merely to avoid inevitable punishment. I don’t blame those who do though.

    I was on a video conference with a group of people at the time that one of them was allegedly committing a sex crime. I know first hand she was factually innocent. In view of this evidence, the Orange County prosecutor offered a plea bargain that meant she served only a year in minimum security, rather than life without parole in “administrative segregation”. She’s transsexual, so a Not Guilty verdict was never on the cards, and she would have been in solitary for many years both before trial and as the appeals dragged on, regardless of final outcome.

    I wouldn’t have taken the plea bargain she did. Ok, I’m an idiot.

  2. Pingback: Ethics Articles | Pearltrees

  3. Mr Barber and the PGA acted properly. Mr. Barber as an aspiring professional would be expected to be familiar with the penalty system of the game, both as to what activity invokes a penalty and what that penalty is. Mr. Barber erred regarding the latter. His disqualification follows logically.

    The PGA is right to apply the penalty. Only if the rules provide for the governing body of the PGA to waive the DQ in this situation, should the waiver even be considered. Not known is what kind of slippery slope this might place them on: there may be past events of similar nature that yielded DQ under similar circumstances but did not receive waivers. Who knows what the future holds. A waiver at this point could open the door to an endless stream of “special circumstances” that someone thought deserved special consideration.

  4. Barber knew he should have been DQ’d the evening it happened but kept it to himself for 8 days…

    How does that factor into your ethics theories?

    • So what? The delay didn’t harm anyone, and he ended up doing the right thing. So it took 8 days to do it. Sure, it would have been more impressive if he reported immediately. It’s still an example of exemplary ethical conduct.

      • Are you kidding?

        The rules of golf call for a DQ the moment you know you have signed an incorrect scorecard — and Blayne knew this. He thought he could get away with it, and in fact tried to get away with it…

        …bottom line, he cheated.

        Cheating in golf is not OK. And you don’t get a free pass for admitting to cheating (which he really didn’t) 8 days later. If he cheated that time, how many other times has he cheated?

        As for this: “So what? The delay didn’t harm anyone, and he ended up doing the right thing.”

        How can you possibly say this? Have you ever played in a golf tournament? Others in the field were making decisions based on what players ahead of them were doing. It is very likely that players who were outside the cut, but were really inside the cut since Barber should have been DQ’d a few days prior, made decisions to play too aggressively based on bad information — terribly harmful.

        I don’t think you understand the rules of golf or how a professional event is contested.

        • Clarification — he really did cheat, he just didn’t admit to cheating. What he did do, 8 days later, was make up some BS cover story in an attempt to give himself a plausible out — fail.

          Again, this is not acceptable in golf. Baseball sure, golf no.

        • I don’t think you check links or know how ethics blogs are written. I’m an expert on a lot of things, but much of the time I rely on published accounts. This one came from ESPN’s golf reporting and other sources. From the article:

          Barber took a 1-shot penalty stroke when he thought his club moved a leaf in a bunker during the first stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School, according to Golfweek magazine. His caddie said he never saw the leaf move, but Barber still applied the penalty stroke to his score. The 2011 U.S. Walker Cup team member didn’t realize the correct penalty is 2 shots until talking with a former college teammate after the tournament.

          “I continued to pray about it and think about it, and I just did not have any peace about it,” Barber told the magazine. “I knew I needed to do the right thing. I knew it was going to be disqualification.”

          Neither ESPN not Golf Week agree with your sinister spin on what happened. There is no evidence that the golfer knew the score card was incorrect: that’s a mistake, not “Cheating.” You have an opinion: go defend it against the conclusions of the gold journalists that I rely on. When they publish a reversal, I will. Do send their retractions here…can’t wait.

          • Apparently Golf Week does, this is the true story (ESPN can’t spell golf):

            ***He was discussing the incident that evening with his former Auburn teammate, Michael Hebert, when Hebert said the penalty for such an infraction was two shots, not one (Rule 13-4c, “Ball in hazard; prohibited actions”). “That’s when things went haywire in my mind,” Barber said. “My caddie was watching and didn’t see the leaf move. I thought maybe I’d psyched myself into thinking I’d (touched the leaf).”

            Barber played the final two rounds because his caddie was certain the leaf hadn’t moved. “I continued to pray about it and think about it, and I just did not have any peace about it,” Barber said. “I knew I needed to do the right thing. I knew it was going to be disqualification.”***


            The “didn’t find out until after the tournament concluded” nonsense is a whitewash for which there is no explanation.

            • Further clarification for you, Blayne obviously did not know that the card was incorrect when he signed it…no problem there.

              However, because the event was ongoing when he did learn the card was incorrect, immediately his obligation became to report the error, and the resulting penalty was DQ. However, instead of doing the right thing, he chose to keep it a secret and see if he could get away with it, that’s when cheating entered the picture.

              If he had truly learned of the incorrect card after the conclusion of the event there would not have been a penalty at all….in fact, there was no penalty. However, in his heart Blayne knew he consciously had done the wrong thing and needed to own up to it, that’s why he called the tour 8 days after the incident.

              • You have no idea if he “tried to get away with it.” He obviously could have gotten away with it. Sometimes it takes a while to work up the courage to do the ethical thing when it involves sacrifice. If you don’t know that, you should.

              • Let me see if I can help you understand the situation as it relates to the rules of golf.

                The rules of golf are clear, any player who who knowingly or unknowingly signs an incorrect scorecard, is disqualified if the scorecard breach is discovered before the conclusion of the event.

                Barber knew this was the rule. As such, once Blayne’s former teammate Michael Hebert informed him (the night of the infraction, with 2 days left to go in the tournament) the penalty for moving a leaf in the bunker was 2-shots (not the 1 Blayne applied) which by default resulted in an improperly signed scorecard, Blayne’s immediate obligation and only option was to inform the tournament officials of the breach, and the result would be a disqualification.

                Any action otherwise would constitute knowingly breaking the rules and concealing said actions/information — this is the definition of cheating.

                The rules of golf do not allow for “working up the courage to do the right thing”, nor do they give players the leeway to “figure out what is fair”, and “confirmation bias” is 100% irrelevant to the rules of golf.

                Here’s a video of Blayne himself describing “a long last 2 rounds and then 5 days later over some discussions with my brother” (while tugging on his ear, a tell in poker parlance)…clearly indicates he knew he had improperly dealt with the penalty, and signed an incorrect scorecard, and the reason he felt agita was because he was knowingly breaking the rules of golf—if that’s not cheating what is it?

              • BTW, this sort of written communication is often ends up short on context and tone, my sense is this might be the case here with our discussion.

                My intent isn’t to question your integrity or position as an arbiter of ethics, but rather to point out that the facts of this situation are widely misunderstood at best….and by all appearances have been intentionally misconstrued on a widespread basis.

                Why? Who knows, I certainly have no dog in the fight personally. That said, golf has generally been an honorable game and it baffles me to see a guy like Blayne Barber get a free pass at the same time a guy like Vijay Singh has had a scorecard snafu held over his head for 3 decades.

                In fact, there may be a bigger story here about the the “ethics” of the broader golf industry, and there just might be a racist undertone/angle to the situation.

                Heard anything about the recent kerfuffle involving Lexi Thompson?

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