Golf’s “cheating” controversy

BOSTON — Recessionary woes have left no sport unscathed. But the pro golf tour, with its reliance on sponsorship from financial services companies and the automobile industry, has gazed headlong into a future that is potentially as rocky as the course at Pebble Beach.

And just while the PGA was scrambling to replace sponsorship money as well as several suddenly defunct tournaments, Tiger Woods fled his house and drove into a hydrant and then a scandal that has temporarily sidelined golf’s supreme champion and singular drawing card.

With no Tiger in sight, the last thing the sport needed in the first few weeks of the new season was a flare-up in which its second most popular player, Phil Mickelson, found himself embroiled in controversy that had him essentially saying, “I am not a cheater.” It had that Nixonian “I am not a crook” feeling and we know that wound up a bad affair.

The controversy is simple if a wee bit arcane. The august American and British stewards of golf rules have banned, beginning this year, the use of irons with square grooves. The square grooves put more spin on the ball, making it easier to control out of the rough. The new grooves, smaller and V-shaped, are less magical in the rough. Thus golfers who drive the ball into the fairway are rewarded.

But because of a 1993 lawsuit settlement, Ping Eye 2 Irons, which boast the groovier grooves, were exempted from the new restrictions. And suddenly a handful of players got their old Ping’s out of mothballs and put them in play. Among them was Mickelson, who used that advantage to finish 19th in the weekend tournament in La Jolla, Ca.

Scott McCarron, a veteran PGA player ranked 212th in the world who failed to make the weekend cut, never actually resorted to calling Mickelson a cheater, as he has been widely quoted. But he did tell the San Francisco Chronicle that using the old clubs was “cheating,” adding “I’m appalled Phil has put it in play.”

Mickelson tried to let it slide, insisted he was conforming to the letter of the law. But when the outrage gained traction, he began to make noises about a lawsuit for slander. The PGA, which can’t stand to have its premier Tiger-chaser tarnished by any brush, suggested such judgments were “inappropriate.”

Perhaps. But it turned out that McCarron found himself in far better company than the illustrious Mickelson. While “Lefty” could point to John Daly, a poster boy for dysfunction, as another golfer who used Pings to circumvent the ban, some big-name golfers like American Rocco Mediate, Australia’s Robert Allenby and England’s Lee Westwood echoed McCarron’s criticism.

While they carefully avoided the c-word, they left little doubt they considered the loophole logic to be an assault on the integrity of the game. Westwood, at a European tour stop in Qatar, said he had thousands of Ping wedges at home and wouldn’t consider using one to circumvent the new restrictions. “As one of our premier players, [Phil] should be one of the guys who steps up and says this is wrong.”

Stepping up, at least ethically, and sports seem eternally at odds. We fans have grown used to athletes seeking every advantage, some criminally illegal like steroids, others just against the rules of the game like a pitcher scuffing the ball in baseball or a player using his hand to control the ball in soccer.

By any of those standards, golf’s groove dispute is small potatoes. Except by one. Golf continually postures as a gentlemen’s game in which honorable players police themselves, even to their disadvantage. We are regaled with stories of players who took penalties when only they were aware of the infraction.

Now we have one of the game’s leaders using a legal loophole to seize an advantage that most of his rivals can’t or won’t utilize. There’s no honor in that, just craven self-interest. Mickelson ought to take a mulligan on this, flash one of his most endearing smiles and say, “My bad.”