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The Last Bastion of the True Sportsman!

By John M. Ross,
Wendy Ward
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Wendy Ward (.)

The sports pages don't seem to be as enlightening today as they were in days gone by. Heroes once were everywhere, and acts of courage and pure sportsmanship could cause the enthralled reader to lift his eyes and say, "Wow!"

The change has been especially evident in recent weeks. There was the story out of Scotland about Mike Tyson's attempt to destroy his helpless heavyweight opponent, Lou Savarese. In less than a minute of the first round, Mike had pummeled his much bigger foe into near-unconsciousness, and the referee had wisely attempted to step in and stop the one-sided assault. Tyson knocked him down and attempted to climb over him to continue his brutal assault on Savarese. All in the name of sport, of course.

A few days later, the main topic in sports was John Rocker's invasion of New York City. This was the controversial Atlanta Braves pitcher's first visit since he trashed the Big Apple's mixed culture of immigrants, gays, purple-haired teenagers, and unwed mothers. And the air was so highly charged that more than 600 police were assigned to Shea Stadium to cope with anticipated fan retaliation.

Thus, instead of this being a vital battle between the Braves and the Mets for first place, it was simply another incident that underscores the question: "What has happened to sport?"

All too often, the sports section now reads like the pages of the Wall Street Journal, as the financial aspects of the various games and enterprises, and especially the athlete's whopping salaries, dominate. In recent weeks we've heard more about George Steinbrenner's frantic pursuit of a home run hitter for his faltering Yankees than the accounts of their actual games. And the bottom line always is the bottom line - how much? How many millions?

Of course, to this compilation we could add all those inspiring scenes we've picked up from the television screen - the deliberate tripping of NBA hoopsters traveling at top speed and risking serious injury when they fall; the oversized lineman using his helmet like a weapon and aiming directly at the quarterback's head; the hockey stick that slashes - not at the puck, but at the wingman's Adam's apple! Sport? Hardly.

Happily, there is respite from this depressing, dirge-like recap in the recent playing of the LPGA Championship in Wilmington, Delaware. As the event wound down to the final holes, Wendy Ward, a pretty 27-year-old Texan and former U.S. Amateur champion, prepared to putt at No. 13. As she grounded her club, she suddenly stepped away and announced: "my ball has moved."

An official hurried to her side and she explained that she had noticed that the ball had turned ever so slightly. No one else had seen it, but she had, and she told the official that she was adding a one-stroke penalty to her score - as required by the Rules of Golf.

In an attempt to detect the ball movement, the television replay monitors went into action. It was played on-screen two or three times, but no movement was detected.

"There was no option," Ward, who was trying to win her first major championship on the tour, would explain. "I know exactly how I set my ball when I putt. On a Callaway ball, its imprint, Rule 35, stares right at me. It moved."

Rule 18-2b dictates that if the ball moves after you've grounded your club, even though you haven't touched it or caused it to move, the one-stroke penalty is assessed. And it was a costly penalty for the former Arizona State University star. The single stroke prevented her from joining Julie Inkster and Italy's Stefania Croce in a playoff for the title and a shot at the winning check of $210,000.

Wendy ultimately tied for third, and her prize came to $76,319. Her honesty and total dedication to the rulebook cost her $134,681. But her unhesitant decision was priceless, adding a little more polish to the glittering and unique image the game of golf enjoys.

Incredibly, the same fate had been suffered by Ward three weeks earlier at the Rochester event. But the damage wasn't as great.

Incidentally, Inkster won the title on the second playoff hole.

It is difficult for non-golfers to comprehend Wendy Ward's action - the total honesty and integrity in the heat of battle and with so much at stake. I watched the last hour or so of this exciting telecast with a couple of friends who play golf only occasionally and they were almost stunned at Ward's self-inflicted punishment.

"I'll bet there aren't many guys who would make that decision, even if they had only a five-dollar Nassau on the line," one of them said.

"Yeah, it would be different if it moved closer to the hole and provided an advantage," the other chipped in. "The TV camera was right on top of it and it couldn't see any movement at all. There was no meaning to it."

Wendy Ward saw it, and that was the difference.

And that's the basis of the Rules of Golf - the foundation of the game; the strength that could make golf the last bastion of the true sportsman.

Most golfers, on learning the game, accept this fact readily; you play by the book. And that is as important as hitting the ball properly and scoring better than your opponent. I'm not naïve enough to think that golfers don't cheat. Of course some do. But most of them don't - even when no one's looking.

On the pro tours, the golfers are careful observers. This is their way of life - big bucks are at stake. And wherever there is a substantial payoff you often have enterprising individuals scheming up ways to snatch those dollars easier. In the years I worked with Commissioner Joe Dey on the PGA Tour, we had only one incident of blatant cheating by one of the tour players.

We didn't have hidden cameras or dozens of officials to spy on them. Occasionally, one of the players would simply voice his suspicions. We had one case where the player, under the right circumstances, was pitching his marking coin closer to the hole when he picked up his ball. Dey turned the tip over to Jack Tuthill, the tournament director who was a former FBI agent.

After observing the player with binoculars from a safe distance, the reported violation proved to be correct. He was given a hearing and ultimately suspended. In the days that followed, an air of gloom settled over our operation. It was as if we had suffered a death in the family.

Yes, golf may very well be the last bastion of the true sportsman.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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