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ISSUE 121 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/18/2008

Inside the Lines: Masters brings out the best

By Barrett Kennedy
Sports Editor

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Integrity in professional sports" has been a consistent oxymoron in recent years. That's why a minor event last Friday nearly knocked me backwards out of my unsightly corduroy "sports watchin'" chair.

I sat there, with my mind lazily wobbling in and out of alertness, as Jim Nantz's voice extended its streak of narrating nearly every televised sporting event I've watched since early March. Nantz's versatile voice employed his golf timbre and lulled me to the brink of a fantastic nap as the second round of the 2008 Masters golf tournament rolled along.

I was moderately aware that Michael Thompson, one of three amateurs in the Masters field, was addressing a putt on one of Augusta National's treacherous greens. As Thompson stood over his putt, he shuddered with what appeared to be a case of the "yips" and quickly backed away from his ball nodding his head.

"What's this?" I wondered as the commentators conjectured about what occurred. Once a PGA marshal entered the screen, the situation became painfully clear. The ball apparently moved after Thompson grounded his putter and took his stance, a one-stroke penalty according to the rules of golf. The Rules of Golf have always carried roughly the same sway as the 10 Commandments, except instead of only 10 rules there are about 11 million. Honestly, there is nothing on this planet more boring than a "Rules of Golf" video. For readers who think the sport is boring to watch on TV (you're all wrong, by the way), just imagine what it would be like to watch a two-hour film about its rules.

Going back to the putt, I use the word "apparently" because nobody saw it actually happen. The commentators didn't see anything happen, nor did the spectators. Not even two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw saw the ball move and he was watching from the fringe of the green.

A zoomed-in replay showed the Alabama senior ground his putter and wiggle his feet a touch to get comfortable before the ball lurched forward. I sighed for the poor guy. A moment ago, Thompson sat at four-over-par for the tournament, staring down a birdie putt that would land him safely under the projected cut line heading into the weekend.

Now Thompson's ball had rolled a fraction of an inch closer to the hole without any putter contact and he was tagged with a one-stroke penalty. Thompson's ensuing putt, now for par, missed about two inches right of the hole and he tapped in for bogey. The golf gods have always been a cruel bunch, haven't they?

I was in a mild state of shock at this point. Here was a senior in college playing on the most prestigious golf stage in the world calling a penalty on himself at the 15th green, just three solid holes away from being the only amateur to make the cut. Still, I shouldn't have been shocked at all by Thompson's integrity.

Thompson's honorable display wasn't the first and wouldn't be the last occurrence in this tournament alone. PGA Tour veteran Bernhard Langer penalized himself during Thursday's opening round. Paul Casey did the same while putting on the sixth green during the final round., even while within striking distance of the victor's green jacket.

It can be so easy for a ball to shift on the green. After all, the Augusta National grounds crew intentionally mows those greens so that it's like putting in a bath tub. But after Thompson's ball shifted on the lightning-quick green, he didn't dole out blame for the penalty that facilitated a premature end to his Masters appearance. When the media asked Thompson about calling the penalty, he responded that "you just have to follow the rules, and the best players do that."

Really? The best players follow the rules, Mr. Thompson? My thoughts immediately widened to the greater sports world and a broader consideration of who "follows the rules." The NFL has had Michael Vick's packs of dogs and problems to deal with. The NBA added Carmelo Anthony, arrested Monday for drunk driving, to its substantial list of rule-breakers. The MLB and integrity repel each other like two positive magnets. Even the Minnesota Wild employs the services of Chris Simon, one of the most suspended players in NHL history.

Each of America's four major professional leagues features athletes who regularly go postal on referees for making "bad calls." In the PGA, players themselves call in the referees. Why does my head spin when an athlete does the right thing? Bobby Jones, one of the greatest golfers to ever play the game, called a penalty on himself during the 1925 U.S. Open and was lauded after the round. His response: "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank."

Thank you, Bobby Jones, for setting the honorable precedent in golf. Thank you, Michael Thompson, for your reminder about real sports integrity. But how am I supposed to enjoy the NHL playoffs the same way I did before watching the Masters, especially after the Wild set a new playoff record for penalty minutes Tuesday?

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