While golf is known for its emphasis on fair and honorable play, what Sergio Garcia did Friday, surprised just about everybody.
The 34-year-old Spaniard was playing in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. It was Sergio Garcia vs. Rickie Fowler in a third-round match. Play had moved to the 7th hole, with Garcia 2-up. On the previous hole, the Par 3 6th, there had been a considerable delay before Garcia hit his 2nd shot from off the green. It was through no fault of his own. His ball had come to rest near a sprinkler head that was covered by bees. Rules allow a free drop. An official was called and approved it. But, after Garcia’s free drop, he had to call the official over again. Bees were swarming around Garcia, necessitating a second drop.
All of this took a lot of time, with Fowler waited patiently on the green. Both players parred the hole. But, Garcia felt badly about the long delay. He thought it was unfair to Fowler. So, on the next hole, with Fowler about 18-feet away and Garcia just 7-feet from the hole, each with par putts, Garcia offered to have both putts conceded. It was a highly unusual offer to make given the circumstances. With the much shorter putt, Garcia had a significant advantage on the hole. The surprised Fowler accepted the offer and they halved the hole.
The gesture of sportsmanship took on additional significance when Fowler birdied the 18th hole to win the match 1-up. Had Garcia not conceded the 18-footer on the 7th hole, he might have won that hole to go 3-up at the time.
Putting Honor Ahead of Winning
Garcia later said he had no regrets for his decision.
“I felt guilty that my drop on 6 took so long. I felt like if I would have been in his position I would have been uncomfortable waiting so long to hit my birdie putt. So I just thought I have to do something. I have to do something to make sure that I feel good with myself.”
Garcia said he values golf as a “Gentlemen’s game” and said:
“This is the way I was brought up by my dad playing golf.”
An incident last month may have influenced Garcia’s decision. A TV viewer called in a possible rules violation by Garcia, who was put on the defensive. As it turned out, the TV video hadn’t shown the entire sequence of events. There was no rules violation. Garcia had done nothing wrong. But, the questioning of his honor bothered him.
When Rules Don’t Apply, Competitor’s Decide What’s Right
While some are praising Garcia for his decision, there are plenty of critics out there bashing him for it. Detractors see his decision as foolish, at best.
There are two major criticisms that usually emerge when sportsmanship is placed ahead of winning.
The first is the argument that a competitor’s responsibility is to do everything possible to win. So, anyone who would do what Sergio did simply doesn’t care enough about “winning”. It’s argued that players shouldn’t get involved in the policing of conduct or playing conditions. That is the job of the officials.
The second argument often is framed as “would the other competitor have done the same for you”?
My educated guess is that most golfers, faced with such a situation in match-play, would not have conceded an 18-foot putt with the outcome of the match not yet decided.
When you break it down, it’s clear that no rule or regulation came into play. And, there was no classic “Right” vs. “Wrong” ethical dilemma faced by Garcia. He had not gained an unfair advantage by trying to circumvent the rules or the spirit of the rules. He hadn’t done anything that objectively could be viewed as “wrong”.
So, you or I probably wouldn’t have given this situation a second thought. I know I wouldn’t have, and sportsmanship is important to me.
But, it doesn’t matter how you or I would have acted. This was Sergio Garcia’s call. “How” he competed in his match against Fowler, mattered to Garcia. His choice was based simply on what felt right to him. He viewed it as an honorable decision that reflected respect for his opponent and for fair competition.
We make decisions every day. Some we are happy with, some we regret.
My guess is that, years from now when Sergio Garcia reflects on this tournament, he will feel good about the choice he made.
At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all would want?
Photo Credit: Keith Allison via Flickr
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Chuck Wilson is an award-winning host, interviewer, and commentator. He was an original host on ESPN Radio and was with the network for close to 17-years. In 2007, Wilson was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. He is the founder of Even Field.