Don't mention the C-word

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Or put it another way. If a golfer cheats but no-one dares to challenge him, is there a cheating problem in golf?

The official answer, apparently, is no. But that’s not what the grassroots are saying. For example, if a player cheats in a club competition, gets caught and sanctioned by his club but is not officially reported to the Provincial Branch or the Golfing Union of Ireland, he will only be out of action for as long as his club sees fit. Or as long as it suits his club to be without his talents.

The recent suspension of a top class player for filling in a brand new scorecard in a stableford competition at his club and then forging his playing partner’s signature to avoid a handicap increase of 0.1 never reached the desk of the General Secretary of the Golfing Union of Ireland or the branch secretary in question.

Surely the life of such a golfer would become a living hell, as Padraig Harrington said in Abu Dhabi when asked if the rules should be changed to protect players from disqualification for unintentional and imperceptible infractions detected only by armchair vigilantes with access to HD televisions and super slow-motion replays. Apparently, in this case, the golfing career of the alleged amateur transgressor has gone from strength to strength.

“[If] there’s somebody in your golf club that doesn’t apply the rules… everybody knows about it, and everybody ostracizes them,” Harrington said. “We love the standard that we play by… that’s the best thing about our game.”

Whatever about the behaviour of the player, it would be sad to think that a club would put its own quest for glory ahead of its honour. Yet this is precisely what happened.

Perhaps it should be chalked down to youthful indiscretion and left at that? Wouldn’t that be fairer? I’m sure Vijay Singh would agree.

The Southeast Asia Golf Federation suspended Singh indefinitely for altering his scorecard in the second round of the ‘85 Indonesian Open in Jakarta when he was 22. He has never been accused of any wrong doing since then. Yet he is still dismissed as a “cheat” despite the multiple tournament and major wins he has achieved since that dark day.

Is a cheat always a cheat? It certainly appears that way for golf is as unforgiving as a two-iron blade on a frosty morning. Even the merest whiff of suspicion is enough to damn those who’ve been singled out as carriers of this dreaded plague.

“It’s widespread,” said one former Irish international player when asked for his opinion on the level of cheating in the amateur game.

Another former interprovincial player added: “Several players have been caught and nothing has happened…….. It’s giving the youngsters coming through a very bad example. For instance, X has been at it for years and everyone knows but ….”

At least one player has been suspended over the past 12 months for a serious breach of the rules at provincial championship level. However, the Union does not believe there is a serious problem to be addressed.

“We have no concerns,” said Seamus Smith, the General Secretary of the GUI. “Any time anything comes up, we take care of it. We have a scorer’s hut set up so that at the end of each round, the official sitting there makes sure that the card going to us is one which the partners concerned are happy with the score a player has made at each hole. They sign that off and we are quite happy that there is no transgression there because it is witnessed by the two players.

“At club level, they have their own structures at committee level and their own code as to how to handle it. It would only come to us, or the branch would handle it if necessary, if the player transgressed outside his club.”

Protecting golf’s image is laudable and those who break the rules must be punished and be seen to be punished. The European Tour, for instance, recently suspended the Scottish golfer Elliot Saltman for three months for “a serious breach of the rules”.

His ban is considered light by many though he continues to claim his innocence and has until the middle of next month to appeal. Yet Saltman was only suspended because both his playing partners spoke out against him.

Those who complain about cheating in Irish golf should do the same, or forever hold their peace.