A harsh lesson from golf to cricket and football: rules are not made to be broken.
It was sad in one way, of course, but also refreshing to be reminded that golf, for all the human fallibility of some of its leading competitors, continues to separate itself so profoundly from most of its rivals. It does this by way of unswerving faith in the rule of law.
Golf fashions the rules, writes them down with considerable clarity, and, most vitally, sticks to them. It doesn't make them up as it goes along. It doesn't prevaricate over whether something is right or wrong. Cheating is not a matter of degree. It is beyond modification.
The latest immutable example came in the small hours of yesterday morning when Dustin Johnson was excluded from the play-off for the USPGA title in Wisconsin, one which he had appeared to qualify for so brilliantly just a few months after a catastrophic meltdown while coming home in the US Open.
Inevitably, the decision provoked bitter protest from the American fans, and much spluttering in the TV booths, not least from the often brilliantly witty but not always totally clear-headed David Feherty.
However, in golf there is no dodging an essential fact. Johnson broke the rules.
No doubt there were extenuating circumstances. When he grounded his club before striking the ball out of a “bunker” he contravened one of the basic laws of golf and it didn't matter that some of the sand-traps on the Whistling Straits lay-out, including the one that consumed Johnson, resemble those you see at places like St Andrews and Augusta about as much as the remnants of a battle scene in Lawrence of Arabia. However, within a few minutes of an extremely unpopular decision an American PGA of
ficial was effectively choking back a tide of indignation which if transferred to most other front-line sports would have flooded us with wearisome rhetoric for several days.
It was gently pointed out that the players, including Johnson, had been bombarded with warnings about the status of every sandy parcel of the course. It was a bunker. It was the number one warning on the local rules sheet — and was even pinned on to mirrors in the locker-room, something, surely, that might have been noticed by even the most committed narcissist.
This is the beauty of golf. There are no compromises, no toleration of the kind of hopelessly blurred line between what is legal and what is not that was so unacceptably visible again at the dawn of a new football season, when Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson spoke, serious-faced, about an appeal against the red card delivered to his new signing Joe Cole for his irresponsible tackle on an Arsenal player. Cole's tackle carried no malice, we were told solemnly and as if it made one iota of difference to the validity of the referee's decision.
Meanwhile, Stuart Broad, someone guilty of serial but often scarcely noted perversion of the spirit of cricket, sails into the third Test against Pakistan despite throwing the ball at an opponent in a fit of pique. Broad's only punishment was the deduction of half his match fee. Dustin Johnson paid for his mistake with the shattered possibility of a landmark major title win. An outrageous dichotomy, you might say. Or then maybe it's just the difference between a sport fighting, come what may, to preserve its values — and another that isn't.