This past weekend, golfer Brian Davis called a penalty on himself that he knew would cost him the Verizon Heritage tournament title. On his backswing from a hazard, he hit a stray piece of reed, thus violating rule 13-4c, and incurring a two stroke penalty. It was a small violation, with very large consequences. Although it’s nearly certain that no one would have noticed the violation, Davis did. And that was enough. His integrity and sense of honor required him to call the violation.
Davis’ actions are incredibly admirable, but not isolated. Here are a few similar incidents that I remember from the last few years.
In 2005, Ohio high school sophomore Van Houten shot 144 to win the state championship by six strokes. After signing the scorecard, however, he noticed that he forgotten to record a stroke on the tenth hole. He reported the error, knowing that it would disqualify him. Van Houten lost the tournament and the state title. Note that the one stroke mistake would have no impact on the score—he still would have won by five strokes. But honor was more important to Van Houten than winning.
In 2007 at the Australian Open, Brandt Snedeker found himself in the rough on the 14th, and bent over to pick up a leaf. At that moment, the ball moved. Calling over partner Nick OHearn, Snedeker called a penalty on himself and took a double bogey six on the hole. He eventually ended up at nine under—one shot behind winner Craig Parry. That penalty stroke cost Snedeker nearly $200,000.
At the Open Championship in 2005, David Toms disqualified himself for signing an incorrect scorecard. Apparently, after signing his scorecard, he began to have doubts about a putt on the 17th hole. Although no one saw it, Toms thought that he might have hit a moving putt. That would have been a two stroke penalty, and if it was, then he signed an incorrect scorecard. He wasn’t sure, and so took the worst result.
In 2008, following the second round of Q-School (the tournament in which would-be professionals earn their Tour Cards), JP Hayes returned to his hotel room, thinking he was in line to earn a spot on the PGA Tour. But when cleaning his bag, he discovered that he had used a prototype golf ball during the round. Because the ball had not been approved by the USGA, it was illegal. No one would ever know, but Hayes couldn’t live with that. He turned himself in, and was disqualified, losing his PGA Tour status.
In 1992, Larry Nelson disqualified himself after the first round of the Masters when he discovered he had a non-conforming club.
Steve Elkington, Greg Norman, Aaron Baddeley, Paula Creamer and Bubba Watson are among many others also have called penalties on themselves, with varying degrees of severity and consequences.
Bobby Jones, of course, once famously called a penalty on himself in the 1925 US Open, in spite of the fact that he was the only one who thought that the ball had moved. When asked why—when even tournament officials said there was no infraction—he had done so, Jones replied: “You might as well praise me for not breaking into banks. There is only one way to play this game.”