THE ARNIE "CHEATING" SCANDAL: TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?


In a book to be published in April, long-time player and announcer Ken Venturi accuses beloved golfing icon Arnold Palmer of having cheated in 1958 to win the first of his four Masters titles. Today, the Writers' Bloc looks at Venturi's accusation -- and speculates a bit on why he is rehashing them now, and what that says about his character.

Our general conclusion? Venturi in particular -- and golf in general -- have a helluva nerve.

Smells like 'mean' spirit | From Jeff Merron

Sometimes it's not just what you say, but how (and when) you say it.

Ken Venturi, who's made a good living talking about golf for decades, should know this.

Venturi, in "Getting Up and Down: My 60 Years in Golf," had to write about the 1958 Masters. It was an important event in his life, and he leaves no doubt about where he stands on that ages-old dispute. "Nobody, not even Palmer, is bigger than the game," Venturi writes. "I firmly believe that he did wrong and that he knows that I know he did wrong."

I don't have a problem with Venturi writing it, in the context of a long and eventful life story. I do think that he chose to have that part of the book excerpted in the April edition of Golf magazine -- knowing it would probably be leaked even earlier -- in order to gain publicity for his autobiography.

I also think he chose to take Palmer down on the eve of the great player's swan song, his 50th and final Masters. It's no accident that the book will be published on March 17, a mere two weeks before Augusta.

That Venturi has chosen to include a half-century old rules dispute as a major part of his life story is lame. Venturi's made his mark on golf, first as a player (his final day at the 1964 U.S. Open is legendary) and then as a broadcaster. Now he's using an old-news dispute to sell his book. It looks like sour grapes . . . because it is. It obscures the fact that Venturi, Palmer's playing partner that day, finished not second, but in a tie for fourth in the tourney.

If anyone should have made something of this, it's Doug Ford or Fred Hawkins, who tied for second, one stroke back. Venturi finished two strokes behind.

The disputed second shot that Palmer took at the 12th hole, which ended up saving him two strokes in the final round, was just that -- disputed. Immediately. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported, in detail, what appeared to have happened in their next-day accounts of Palmer's victory. The Times even put it in a subhead: "Ruling on 12th Green and Eagle at 13th Help Palmer."

True. The ruling helped. And in going back over the old newspaper accounts and Palmer's most recent description of his play at the 12th, in his 1999 autobiography "A Golfer's Life," I've come my own conclusion: Arnold didn't cheat. He made an aggressive decision to play a second ball in what was an ambiguous situation, and he signed off on his card only after tourney officials made the decision to allow the score of "3" on the hole to stand.

Palmer himself has written about the dispute in two books, and acknowledged that Venturi has a different point of view. In "A Golfer's Life," he wrote, "Ken Venturi, who was contending that afternoon, was among those who felt he'd been cheated by my actions on the hole, but I knew the rule, and I believed I was well within my rights to do what I'd done."

But let's put aside, for a moment, the how and why of Venturi's accusation. Let's assume, for argument's sake, that Venturi is right -- that Palmer shouldn't have played that second ball, that he should have written a "5" on his scorecard instead of a "3" for that hole. It's still a cheap shot. Here's why:

1.) Palmer has played a lot of golf since 1958, and has an extraordinary reputation. He's not known to bend, much less break, the rules. One borderline, controversial move on his part sheds no new light on his character or his career.

2.) If Palmer "cheated," than so has every sports competitor who has accepted a call in his or her favor, knowing it was wrong. The theory, as everyone knows, is that it all evens out in the end. You get bad calls in your favor; you get bad calls going against you. At the end of the day, it's legit to voice your disagreeement (as Venturi did right after the 1958 Master's ended), but then you move on. Venturi had his chance against Palmer again in the 1960 Masters -- and lost.

3.) There's no endgame. Palmer can't be retroactively disqualified, because, while he made the shots, he didn't make the ruling. The 1958 Masters might or might not have gone in Palmer's favor if the ruling had been different. We'll never know. A "5" doesn't simply add two strokes to Palmer's score -- it changes how all holes that follow are played.

Arnold Palmer might not, as Venturi put it, be "bigger than the game." But, like a handful of other icons -- Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods -- he's played a huge role in making the game bigger. Venturi and all the good, but not great, PGA Tour golfers have only gained by playing on the same stage as Arnie & Co. It's too bad that at the end of a long, accomplished life in golf, Venturi is still playing a grudge match.

The real injustice | From Alan Grant

I agree with Jeff's overall take on the issue. I don't begrudge Venturi for penning his memoir, but to dwell on such a petty item at this particular time proves him quite the little punk.

The issue at hand was hardly an "injustice," just a disagreement on the interpretation of the rules. Venturi is guilty of the real injustice here. Athletes (or in the case of golfers, participants in games of intricate skill) are just like everyone else in the sense that they too, experience defeat, tragedy and life's general hardships. The difference is, most of them have the strength and vision to keep moving forward.

Who was wronged? | From Chuck Hirshberg

WHY I HATE GOLF, by Hirsh Horn Hirshberg, Chapter CXXXVIII

Today, I hate golf because a white male golfer has the audacity to complain he was cheated out of something on a golf course 45 years ago.

You think having an opponent take an extra stroke means getting "cheated?" How about not even being able to get off the tee because your skin's the wrong color, or your religion is unacceptable to the Club board, or you happen to be female, or some other stupid reason?

You know who really got cheated in 1958? All of the people who weren't allowed to compete against Palmer and Venturi because of bigotry. If Tiger Woods had been alive then, instead of now, he wouldn't have gotten any closer to the Masters than the caddyshack. Now that's cheating.

You-know-what happens | From Eric Neel

Amen, Chuck.

And another thing, too: Forget the unearthing of some age-old Arnie "crime" and take note, once again, of how oddly ruled-up golf is and always has been. So your ball is imbedded, so what? Hit the ball. Bad luck happens. Imbedded balls happen. Relief? What is this?

Here's what should have happened 58 years ago: Arnie asks for a drop and the folks around him (the whole beautiful Hirshberg mix of them) laugh, knowing he can't be serious.

You-know-what happens | From Jim Caple

And how about the arcane rule that they must sign their scorecards? They have a TV camera following them at every hole, tournament organizers keep track of their every stroke, their round is toted up on the scoreboard throughout the day and there still is a need for them to sign a scorecard? And if they make an honest mistake, the entire round is invalid?

That's like saying Barry Bonds has to supply his own box score and if he misses one at-bat, the whole game is thrown out.