Competitiveness is fine, but sportsmanship and courtesy are far more integral to golf
Talk about breaking stereotypes: the ladies’ game is apparently no less cut-throat than the dog-eat-dog world of men’s pro golf. I’m referring to the Solheim Cup—the ladies’ version of the Europe versus America Ryder Cup—where, last week, a controversy regarding sportsmanship, or rather a lack of it, erupted.
Here’s what happened: Europe’s Suzann Pettersen was playing in the fourballs with Charley Hull against the American pair of Alison Lee and Brittany Lincicome. Lee hit a birdie putt from 10 feet, inches past the hole on the 17th green. The putt, had it gone in, would have put her and Lincicome one up on the Continentals in a tight scoring match with one hole to go. The fact that the referee announced the score and that Hull walked off the green led Lee to believe that the putt had been automatically conceded by the Americans and proceeded to scoop the ball up. That is when Pettersen made it clear that the short putt had not been given. That left the match referee with no choice but to award the hole to the Americans who went on to win the 18th hole and the match. The 19-year-old Lee was in tears on the green after the match finished and the entire event cast a dark cloud over the biennial team event. Britain’s Laura Davies, a veteran of the Solheim Cup and who was commentating on this year’s event for Sky Sports, described the incident as ‘disgusting’. “She (Pettersen) has let
herself down and she has certainly let her team down,” said Davies. “I am so glad I’m not on that team this time.”
Pettersen was widely criticised in the media and the unsavoury affair presumably affected the European team so much that they capitulated the next day as the Americans rallied to win the event. The Norwegian tendered an emotional apology for her behaviour on social media saying she was “sorry for not thinking about the bigger picture in the heat of the battle”. “I’ve never felt more gutted and truly sad. I have learned a valuable lesson about what is truly important in this great game,” added the 34-year-old.
If you ask me, it’s a red-letter day for golf. Golf’s spirit of sportsmanship, which dictates that the game is governed as much by rules as it is by honourable behaviour, is what elevates the game to true greatness. The game’s legends set benchmarks not just for their quality of play, but for etiquette, integrity and sportsmanship. Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the finest ambassador for the game in history, is well known for his courtesy; interaction with fans; and that famous ‘given’ putt to Tony Jacklin at the 1969 Ryder Cup. At a tournament where, unlike the rest of the tourney, players are playing for national pride and emotions are running high, Nicklaus’ gesture remains unparalleled. You want to understand what the ‘spirit of the game’ means when it comes to golf? Look no further.
It’s one of those traits of the game that has become somewhat less attractive in the modern game. Golf has got younger, fitter, more ‘professional’, and aggression is very much the order of the day. Nothing represents the manifestation of this than that famous fist pump by Tiger Woods. Going for the kill is fashionable in what was once a gentle game. Not demeaning the urge to win, it’s this aspect of his game that made Woods the star he was, and popularised the game for the younger generation. But there’s something to be said about what sets the game apart from other sports. There’s no point being deluded about it: the fact that most professional golf is based on strokeplay rather than matchplay makes it somewhat easier for players to adhere to the game’s traditions of integrity and sportsmanship. The killer instinct in strokeplay is more about surmounting your own demons, not vanquishing an opponent.
No such thing with amateurs playing their weekend nassaus. I see more and more ugly scenes of raised voices and haranguing over strokes at courses around the country, compounded, undoubtedly, by betting, which usually involves more than who buys the post-round lemonade. With no malice, this seems to be the case more with players who are new converts to the game and who may not have had an all-encompassing initiation into the game and its traditions. Thankfully, this is not true of the juniors: at the Delhi Golf Club’s Junior Training Programme, for example, promising youngsters get a complete education—history, etiquette, sportsmanship, rules and swing instruction. That’s what is needed.
Coming back to matchplay, the prestigious President’s Cup, which pits teams from America against an international contingent (sans Europe), is all set to tee off from October 8-11. Always a riveting event to watch, interest will be heightened for Indian fans, as Anirban Lahiri, now ranked 40th in the world, will become the first Indian player to represent the Internationals.
The soft-spoken lad from Bengaluru has taken on the mantle of India’s torchbearer on the world stage from Jeev Milkha Singh. The enormity of that is not about matching play, but rather the high standards for humility and conduct that the Chandigarh veteran is known for. There could not have been a more gracious and articulate public face for Indian golf than Singh, and Lahiri would do well to follow in his footsteps. And by all accounts, he seems very much equipped for the task.
Best of luck, Anirban! You’re so much more than just a good player to the scores of youngsters who’ll sit glued to their television sets watching you take on the world’s best. Give them something to emulate.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game