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The fair way to judge golf: as a model for life

If respect for our opponents, the rules, and spirit of the game are important values, then golf is an ethical model we should cherish.

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When the great amateur golfer Bobby Jones called a penalty on himself for a rules violation no one else had observed, others praised him for his honesty. Jones is said to have replied that he might as well have been praised for not robbing a bank.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently condemned golf as a bourgeois sport that should not be added to the Olympics. And in a recent blog, New York Times ethicist Randy Cohen criticizes golf on ethical grounds, maintaining, along with President Chávez, that golf is an elitist sport with little or no moral worth.

According to Mr. Cohen, it is a game of the affluent and privileged, professional players are too conservative, and the game lacks diversity or social concern. He suggests that from a moral point of view we probably would be better off without it.

But at a time when many observers of contemporary sports are criticizing the effects of elite athletic competition on the ethics of competitors, golf is a counterexample to their concerns. In fact, other sports could learn a thing or two from the etiquette of golf.

Critics charge that too many sports programs lead to a diminished sense of responsibility among athletes. Authority is delegated to rules officials and coaches. Players often are reluctant to correct even an obviously incorrect call in their favor or question decisions of their coaches, even those that have ethical ramifications. After all, it's the referee's job to make the call and the coach's job to give orders.

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