Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jack Nicklaus' Own Rules Controversy (Or: The Time an Official Quit Mid-Match After Arguing with the Bear)

Look hard enough and you can find rules controversies involving every legend of golf. Controversies today are blown all out of proportion by the 24/7 media (and blogging) environment. Past stars of the game, though, are remembered through gauzy filters of legend, lore and memory.

But even Mr. Sportsmanship himself, Jack Nicklaus, was once involved in a rules blow-up that was so nasty the rules official walking with Nicklaus' group quit in the middle of the round.

The site was the Piccadilly World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, the year was 1966. Nicklaus was very early in his career, but he was already a legend in the making.

The Bear was playing in the championship match against Gary Player, a heavyweight matchup indeed. It was a 36-hole final that Player would eventually win 6 and 4. But in the morning session, Nicklaus and Player reached the ninth hole with Nicklaus 1-down.

Nicklaus hooked his drive into a ditch. Under a stroke penalty, Nicklaus was allowed to drop outside the ditch. However, the area in which he dropped was nasty and gnarly, too, and Nicklaus' dropped ball settled into a terrible lie.

But when Nicklaus stood over the ball and looked toward the hole, he noticed a Piccadilly Cigarettes advertising sign about 50 or 60 yards ahead. No sources say just how big the sign was, whether it was quite large or something smaller. The billboard was not, however, impeding Nicklaus' ball flight - it wasn't in the way of the shot. It was, however, in his vision.

Nicklaus called over the rules official and asked for another drop, this time a free drop, for line-of-sight relief.

This is where we have to acknowledge that the sources don't agree on the exact chain of events - even the real-time newspaper accounts differed on some of the details. Plus, rules at the time were far more malleable and open to interpretation by rules officials and tournament and club officials; local rules at different tournament stops were much wider in content and intent. So it's simply impossible to say, looking back from this distance, who was in the right, Nicklaus or the rules official.

But the rules official told Nicklaus no, you can't have a free drop for line-of-sight relief.

Who was the rules official? He was Col. Anthony Arthur Duncan, OBE - Tony Duncan, as he was commonly called - a legend in Welsh golf at the time.

Duncan, according to one account, stood behind Nicklaus' ball and determined that the sign didn't interfere with Nicklaus' line of sight, that it was slightly to one side of Nicklaus' line - that it was not directly between Nicklaus' ball and the pin. (While one of the other sources states that the sign actually blocked Nicklaus' view of the green!)

Other sources state that the crux of the dispute was an interpretation of a local rule in effect that week in which all temporary structures were treated as immovable objects.

What Duncan's ruling boiled down to is this: He though the line-of-sight argument was strained beyond the point of credulity, and that Nicklaus only brought it up because his lie was so bad. Duncan thought Nicklaus was trying to pull a fast one, in other words, to improve his lie.

From Nicklaus' point of view, the rules said what the rules said, and if there was line-of-sight interference, which Nicklaus adamantly claimed there was, that should have been the end of it: free drop.

But Duncan just didn't see the alleged interference the way Nicklaus did, and he ruled no drop. Nicklaus tried to hack the ball out of the rough, then conceded the hole to Player.

But he was fuming over the ruling. Various accounts say the atmosphere during the argument between Nicklaus and Duncan, and in the ruling's aftermath, was nasty.

They continued to argue over the ruling until, on the next tee, an exasperated Duncan asked Nicklaus if he would prefer a new official. One account says that Nicklaus simply replied, "Yes." Another says that Nicklaus' reply was, "I'd like one who knows the rules."

So Duncan quit. "The atmosphere between myself and Nicklaus was such that I could not continue as referee," Duncan told reporters at the time. Some sources says fans on-site thought Nicklaus to be "rude" or "bellicose."

Was Tony Duncan a hard-ass about the rules? An angry man abusing his position as match referee to boss around the young hotshot?

Definitely not. British golf legend and Hall of Famer Sir Henry Cotton thought Duncan's call correct, and called him "as fair, as knowledgeable and as experienced" a referee as could be found.

And we know, beyond any doubt, that Duncan was willing to consider "the spirit of the rules" to overlook a by-the-book violation when the circumstances warranted, because he'd famously done just that years earlier.

Duncan was the captain of the Great Britain & Ireland side at the 1953 Walker Cup. In one of the matches, American team member James Jackson discovered he had too many clubs in his bag.

Under the rules at that time, Jackson should have been disqualified, forfeiting the match. Duncan thought that unfair, and contrary to the spirit of the Walker Cup. So he made a captain's decision: "Britannia waives the rules." (That was a play on the old saw about the British Navy: "Britannia rules the waves." Whether Duncan actually said it, or whether it was just later ascribed to him, is another of those things on which source materials disagree.)

Instead, the teams agreed that Jackson would be penalized with the loss of two holes. (And, in fact, today that is the rule - carrying too many clubs causes loss of hole in match play, up to a maximum of two holes lost.) The irony, of course, is that agreeing to waive the rules is a violation of the rules!

So Duncan was a man who was willing to consider circumstances, sportsmanship, the nature of the competition, the letter of the law and the "spirit of the game," and take all that into account in making his ruling.

Was Nicklaus right or Duncan right? It's impossible to say now, since, as noted, the source materials often differ in the details.

In his 1980 encyclopedia The Who's Who of Golf, Peter Alliss wrote that "a present judgment might be that Duncan was following the spirit of the rules, Nicklaus the letter."

There is one thing that we can say with certainty: Had such an incident, involving an angry dispute between a young hotshot and a veteran, respected rules official, in a big tournament, happened today, it would be dissected over and over and over again on Golf Channel, in golf publications, by bloggers. Fans would pore over clips of the argument on YouTube and battle one another in comment sections of websites. The legends of the game never had to deal this type of media environment, and the possible effects it can have one one's reputation.

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