One Day at Shinnecock Hills in 2018
How does a golfer, regarded as one of the greats, find themselves on the list of the biggest cheaters in golf history?
Back in the summer of 2018 one of the strangest moments in modern golfing history occurred at the US Open Championship being hosted at the Upstate New York golf club, Shinnecock Hills.
On the 13th green on day three of the Open Phil Mickelson putted his ball towards the hole.
But then, realising that his ball was not only going to miss, but to keep on rolling, leaving him with an even longer putt than before, Mickelson chased after it and hit it back across the green before the ball had even stopped from the first putt.
Here was one of modern golf’s foremost figures, a five-time major champion, clearly breaking the rules.
These state that a player’s ball has to have come to a fully stopped, resting position before you are allowed to hit it again. Yet Mickelson had clearly not done that.
Uproar followed. Mickelson was forced to take a two-stroke penalty for his breaching of the rule, but others claimed he should have been disqualified from the tournament, so flagrant was his infraction of the rules.
Others still defended Mickelson, noting that the way the course was set up at Shinnecock Hills made it impossible to play the course.
What all of this lays bare is how often the concept of cheating when it comes to golf is open to interpretation.
Did Mickelson cheat? Did he commit a minor infringement? Were his actions justifiable given the way the course was set up almost like crazy golf?
In what follows we explore the issue of cheating in golf and question, who are the biggest cheaters in golf history?
Vijay Singh at the 1985 Indonesian Open
There are clearly incidents where people are unambiguously cheating.
A clear cut case is that of the three-time major champion, Vijay Singh. Singh has had a distinguished career, including winning the Masters in 2000 and two US PGA Championships in 1998 and 2004.
But way back in 1985 when he showed up to the Indonesian Open he was a largely unknown 22-year old from Fiji. Singh was struggling at that time on what was the forerunner of the Asian Tour and so he needed a good finish in Jakarta.
This most likely explains why towards the end of the second round at the Indonesian Open Singh suddenly lost one of his shots.
His scorecard when it was submitted at the end of his round was one stroke less than it should have been.
Singh has always maintained that this was a mistake, but there is no doubt that the change to his card would have increased his chances of making the cut.
Neither happened as it turns out, as Singh’s crime, whether intentional or not, was noticed and he was disqualified from the Indonesian Open in what is one of the biggest alleged cheating scandals in golf history.
Other Big Cases of Cheating in Golfing History
There are numerous other incidents like this which have occurred over the years and which would seem to be unambiguous cases of people cheating on the golf course.
One notorious one concerned Kenny Perry, a runner-up at the 1996 US PGA Championships and the 2009 Masters Tournament.
Just weeks after finishing tied second at the Masters in 2009 Perry became embroiled in a controversy over whether he moved his ball slightly at the Players Championships at TPC Sawgrass in order to give himself a much better lie in the rough.
The case created some furore at the time and would surely make him one of the biggest cheaters in golf history, however it has never been comprehensively proven that Perry moved his ball intentionally.
In a similar incident many years earlier, two of golf’s greatest, Tom Watson and Gary Player, ended up embroiled in a major clash back in 1983 following the inaugural Skin’s Game that year.
Player emerged as the winner of $170,000, but his victory was overshadowed when Watson accused him of having removed a rooted leaf which was resting against his ball on the 16th hole.
At the time Watson was overheard saying to Player, “I’m accusing you Gary…you can’t do that…I’m tired of this…I wasn’t watching you, but I saw it.”
Watson’s claim was that the leaf could not be removed as it was not a loose impediment, but Player vociferously defended himself, saying the leaf was loose and it was legitimate for him to remove it.
What’s curious about this is Watson’s statement that he was “tired of this,” suggesting that Player, a nine-time major winner, was known for such behaviour.
Perhaps the most blatant, though largely unknown, cheating scandal of all time in golf, though, was committed by the Scottish professional, David Robertson, during qualifying for the British Open in 1985.
Robertson was banned for repeatedly replacing his ball incorrectly during one of his qualifying rounds.
His punishment was perhaps a little excessive though. Robertson was banned from professional golf for twenty years and was fined £20,000.
His crime was matched in more recent years by his compatriot, the Scotsman Elliot Saltman.
In 2011 Saltman was suspended from the European Tour for having replaced his ball incorrectly during the first round of the Russian Challenge Cup.
Saltman pleaded his innocence, but did not appeal the ban and was given a three month ban.
It’s an indication of exactly how lenient the bans have become, as Robertson’s ban was nearly matched by the ten year prohibition on professional golf handed to the Swede, Johan Tumba, who was banned for ten years for replacing his ball incorrectly.
And then there are the more ambiguous issues, cases where, like Mickelson at Shinnecock Hills in 2018, it is not entirely clear if the infringement should even be called cheating to begin with.
Such is surely the case with the Ping Eye 2 controversy of 2010.
This arose owing to the decision of a number of professional golfers to use the Ping Eye 2 wedge in professional play, despite the PGA Tour having determined that the grooves of the club were too ‘aggressive’ to be allowed during tour play.
These square grooves were deemed to be giving users of the club a massive advantage as they caused chipped balls to stop too suddenly.
Despite the ban, players such as Mark Calcavecchia, Padraig Harrington and Phil Mickelson, from whom controversy is never far away, continued to use the club for a time, until Groovegate was eventually resolved.
Was this cheating or not is the question?
A similar ambiguity exists around acts of unsportsmanlike conduct at events such as the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup over the years.
For instance, the behaviour of players and fans on the American side at Brookline in 1999 has generally been perceived as so aggressive as to constitute a form of cheating.
Moreover, is it cheating if one breaks the rules, but in doing so acts against their own interest?
Who can forget the case of Dustin Johnson, who on the way to winning the US Open Championship in 2016 was penalised a shot for having moved the ball ever so slightly when he grounded the club.
This incident would not have benefited Johnson in any substantive fashion, but he was penalised a shot in the end for it.
As such, while he may have been at fault, Johnson’s ‘cheating’ here, if such it can be called, very nearly served to cost him the US Open Championship.
The Biggest Cheaters in Golf History
So, who are the biggest cheaters in golf history?
Let’s offer up the names of two individuals who have been fairly unambiguously accused of cheating.
The first is Jane Blalock.
During a near twenty year career on the LPGA Tour between 1969 and 1987 Blalock won 34 tournaments and was one of the most successful female golfers of her era.
However, accusations of cheating dogged Blalock over the years and led in the mid-1970s to one of the most infamous cheating scandals of all time.
In 1972 Blalock won the Dinah Shore Colgate Winner’s Circle, but a few weeks later she was accused of having replaced her ball-marker incorrectly which playing at the Bluegrass Invitational in Kentucky.
The LPGA subsequently found her guilty and both fined and suspended her from the tour. Blalock fired back by engaging in a lawsuit against the LPGA, one which dragged on acrimoniously until 1975, but when she eventually won her case Blalock did so on technical grounds.
There were continuing suggestions that she had cheated throughout her career and she never escaped from these accusations.
On the men’s side of the professional game the most notorious of all those who have been accused of cheating is surely Patrick Reed.
The winner of the 2018 Masters has repeatedly been accused of cheating on the golf course.
Such accusations, whether they involve moving his ball to obtain a more favourable lie, or replacing his ball-marker incorrectly, have dogged Reed as far back as his days playing at the University of Georgia, where he was actually dropped from the college golf team on the back of numerous cheating allegations.
The year after winning the Masters in 2018 he was penalised two strokes for moving sand from around his ball while playing at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in an effort to produce a more favourable lie.
And in 2021 Reed was at it again.
During the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open, while leading the tournament by four shots, Reed hit his shot into the rough on the 10th hole.
He then proceeded to pick his ball up, claiming it had not bounced and was embedded in the ground, despite the fact that video footage clearly showed it bouncing.
This was one incident too many and several of Reed’s colleagues on the tour called him out unequivocally for this latest infringement.
So, does Reed top the list of the biggest cheaters in golf history?