Tiger Woods, Decisions and Virtue

Tiger copped a plea. Given the opportunity to conduct a gentlemanly withdrawal from the Masters after a serious rules violation – and do much to rehabilitate his battered image as club-tossing, F-bomb dropping philanderer – he hid behind a technicality: “(they) say I can keep playing, so here I am.”

By now, you probably know the story (no, not about his divorce). During this year’s Masters golf tournament, one of the most prestigious in the world, Tiger committed golf’s capital crime by signing an incorrect scorecard after taking an illegal drop of the ball. It wasn’t the cheating you might see over beers during a round at your local muni, like kicking your ball back into the fairway, and probably was unwitting. It was against the rules, though, and when he signed his scorecard without adjusting for a penalty the deed was done and irreparable, regardless of the fact no one at the time had complained about the drop.

At least it had been irreparable since the beginning of golf time. It is the moral backbone of the sport. Two years ago, however, the Lords of Golf introduced a little-known escape clause to the rule allowing tournament directors to waive disqualification in “exceptional circumstances.”

“Exceptional” meaning whenever golf’s biggest star and money maker is about to be tossed and TV ratings are on the line, I suppose.

I’ll give the tournament directors, members of the venerated Augusta National Golf Club, a pass on this one. The club doesn’t need the money and it will be around long after Tiger – and CBS, the broadcaster of the tournament – are gone. They were the ones who invoked the double-secret rules exception and offered it to Tiger. But I have to think, when they put on their green jackets and called him into the office before Saturday’s round, they expected him to decline their offer and withdraw. As probably most of the great golfers of history would have done. Golf is that sort of thing.

Tiger demurred.

A blog about arcane practices and moral codes among a bunch of “One Percenters” might seem to have little connection with the modern workplace, but think about times you are faced with a decision that may or may not hurt you, but involves a matter of right and wrong.  A star salesman turns in a receipt for a small amount that will pass with accounting but you can tell is fake – do you blow the whistle and start a firestorm; maybe lose a client? You mistakenly get singled out in a big meeting for a memo that you didn’t write but no one will find out – do you say something? Do you lie to protect a good friend, if nobody gets hurt? Believe in no harm, no foul? The slope gets slippery.

Take comfort that these are not easy questions; they would cause much disagreement among moral philosophers. Some argue there is a right and wrong thing to do in most situations and a virtuous person should choose accordingly, without regard to the consequences. Others view decision-making quite practically – if more people benefit from an action than don’t, or if an action doesn’t hurt anybody, go for it. Thomas McGovern, a professor who taught ethical philosophy for years at the University of Virginia and a serious golfer, strongly disagreed with me when I expressed to him my opinion about Tiger: “to argue that Tiger should have self-declared himself DQ — for whatever justification — is fraught with contradictions … I could argue this point from Kant’s categorical imperative perspective, or from a utilitarian ‘greatest good for the greatest number of people’ perspective, or perhaps even from Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance.'”

OK, got me there – I was planning to rely upon the philosophical musings of Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson.

Maybe I labor under a “veil of ignorance,” but I stand by my opinion. Tiger should have withdrawn, as they would have done. The ethics and moral code of golf required it, regardless of the fact that millions of people wanted to see Tiger play on the weekend.

Do the right thing. There is a reason they call it that.