Ethics in the Game of Golf

Ethics, as defined by, means: “a system of moral principles; or the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.:” In golf, this can mean a number of things and be interpreted in many ways. As one who’s played golf for nearly 6 decades and been involved in the golf business for nearly 4, I’ve observed the (mostly) good, the bad and the ugly. What exactly are ethics in golf? Many within the game often look to The Rules of Golf as their guide for how to play the game and more importantly how it should be played. Rules and ethics, however are different. Yes, the rules of etiquette, now under the most recent iteration Rule 1.2 referring to Player Conduct addresses ethics to some degree, but it’s rare for a player to be penalized in competition for a breach of etiquette. Rule 1.2 reads:

All players are expected to play in the spirit of the game by: (1) Acting with integrity – for example, by following the Rules, applying all penalties, and being honest in all aspects of play. (2) Showing consideration to others – for example, by playing at a prompt pace, looking out for the safety of others, and not distracting the play of another player.T (3) Taking good care of the course – for example, by replacing divots, smoothing bunkers, repairing ball-marks, and not causing unnecessary damage to the course.

One should check to see whether the Committee has adopted a Code of Conduct, and what penalties for violations might be assessed.

There are clear examples of golfers being suspended or expelled from clubs or tournaments for cheating, but not as frequently for ignoring the second and third points regarding pace, distraction or not caring for the course. Sure, a successful club with plenty of members might boot someone that plays slowly but what happens when a board or committee member subtly, but intentionally distracts his or her opponent in the club championship or member-guest? Recently, I played golf with someone who hit the golf cart’s gas pedal at the top of my backswing so often I began expecting it. These more subtle indiscretions can often go overlooked but more importantly foretell a person’s ethics on the golf course, even if the offender didn’t technically break a rule. I’ve always been intrigued by incidents of the guy on the board or committee with a questionable reputation in business or who’s known for personal indiscretions that’s first in line to criticize or possibly reprimand fellow golfers for not fixing a ball-mark, replacing a divot or driving a cart in the wrong place. There are always people at every club who self-appoint themselves as the “member police” and make the club their fiefdom. Are they as ethical as they seem to expect others to be?

Some clubs experience ethical questions in their operations. It’s not at all uncommon for the companies of board or committee members to become vendors for products and services used by the club, whether or not they are the best fit. Board members at some clubs are often afforded more favorable service and premiere tee times, among other “perks”. When there’s a rule about cell phones or dress codes, are some treated differently than others? At some clubs, board members and club leaders even stay on beyond term limits often described in club bylaws. The lack of transparency at many clubs is something members seem to complain about over a broad spectrum of private golf clubs.

In recent times, ethics in golf has taken a more public turn. Three years ago, as I wrote in “Does Golf have a social obligation?” Golf Channel Host Brandel Chamblee took a very strong position opposing PGA Tour player participation in the Saudi International Event in the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. More recently, he (and others) have expressed strong opposition to the “sportswashing” from the Saudi backed LIV Golf Tour prepared to start this week in England. LIV Tour Commissioner Greg Norman has been widely criticized for insensitive remarks about the Khashoggi murder being a “mistake” and the question has been raised more than once as to whether PGA Tour players should support LIV. This seems to be both an ethical (or at least moral) question as well as a legal question. With the signing of PGA Tour star Dustin Johnson, and his subsequent loss of sponsorship from RBC Bank, these questions grew louder and the social conscience of golf is again questioned – even louder. Some of the questions being asked include:

  • Should the PGA Tour be able to ban players for participating in rival tours?
  • Do the players have moral and ethical obligations in a social issue?
  • Is there a legal issue interfering with the players right to earn a living if they are suspended or banned from the PGA Tour?
  • Is playing the PGA Tour (for those qualified) a right or a privilege?
  • Does guaranteed money dilute the allure of professional golf, which has always been “eat what you kill”?

I’m sure there will be many opinions on these and other kinds of issues that golf will always struggle with. Many golfers and golf organizations promote the game as “a gentlemen’s game”. No doubt, in most cases we golfers treat each other pretty well. Most of us allow our opponents to play their shots without distraction, try to leave the course and the game better off than we find it and are generally considerate of each other. However, the game is not without its “ethical” challenges, especially when we hope to attract new players from other activities and sports to grow the game and enhance its economic health.

As the game navigates the now very public questions of morality, social responsibility and ethics resulting from PGA Tour player participation in the LIV tour, it will be interesting to see if it has any impact on participation in the US. Stay tuned.