I can make you feel good: Why we cheat on the golf course

The Scoop

Cheating in professional golf is very rare. But it's commonplace in the hacker ranks. Why is that? Pete Willett has an idea...

We’ve all been there. Standing on the tee, driver in one hand, Vaseline in the other. What do you mean you haven’t? It’s a real thing. Honest.

OK, but you have almost certainly kicked your ball away from behind a tree when your playing partners weren’t looking. Or written five on your scorecard when you actually took six.

Thought so. Now I’ve got you…

Cheating in golf at the professional level, though, is a rare occurrence. There are some notable past cases that I’m sure you’ve all read about, but there has never been an incident in golf on the same scale as those that have marred other sports; NFL’s “deflategate”, Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God”, or the Russian athletes who – shall we say – needed some help along the way to the Olympic podium.

Indeed, the most fabled account of golfing dishonesty comes courtesy of a delusional, fascistic head of state famed for exaggerating his golfing achievements. And before an army of trolls start sending me links to Liberal Tears mugs, I’m talking about late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il.

The story goes that in his first and only attempt at our beautiful game, he managed five holes-in-one in a 38-under-par round of 34 at Pyongyang Golf Club. Impressive! (Stop laughing at the back.) This is the man who also, according to his biography, was walking and talking at just 3 weeks old, wrote 1,500 books in three years and penned six operas. Oh, and he controls the weather and invented the hamburger. And went to the moon before Neil Armstrong.

No wonder he was in a rush when he finally managed to squeeze 18 holes into his schedule…

But when the most famous account of dishonesty in golf is a 20-year-old tale from the man who reinvented egomania, the sport should be proud.

The financial reward for a professional golfer to cheat and get away with it in golf are vast, with every place you finish further up the leaderboard potentially worth thousands, So why is there no cheating?

I don’t believe golf has avoided contentious issues because it is played by a more honest class of people – it is just a result of circumstance. Any benefit gained in the professional game by cheating is far outweighed by the likelihood of being caught.

The strength gains and improved recovery times granted by doping seem like an unnecessary gamble for a sport not overly reliant on turning your body into a machine. And under the watchful eye of vigilant spectators and multiple cameras, “cheating” is far more likely a result of absent mindedness, rather than deliberate deception.

cheatWhile researching this piece, I happened upon a case study called ‘The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behaviour’. It confirmed my instinct based on my personal experience. We don’t cheat for financial gain – although this may sometimes be a pleasant benefit. We cheat, because, if we can get away with it, it makes us feel good.

This would suggest that away from the professional game, there is just as much cheating in golf as there is in other sports. Allow me to paraphrase the study. (After all, it’s far easier to steal someone else’s ideas than try and think of my own. Why toil when I can cheat?)

The frequency with which people engage in unethical behaviour conflicts with the desire to maintain a positive image: risk vs. reward. When presented with an opportunity to bend the rules in order to improve our chances, we are faced with a dilemma: what we want to do vs. what we should do.

The study suggests we all have high opinions of ourselves in relation to whether or not we believe we are a “good” person. (I agree. I think I’m great.) In hypothetical events, we are able to give the moral answer. But when faced with the sudden impulse to kick your golf ball out from behind a tree, you’ll probably do it, as long as you think you’ll get away with it.

And this is the most interesting part: It will make you feel good.

As long as we can justify to ourselves that there is no real victim, it feels good. And then we can go back to thinking how noble our actions would be if faced with an ethical dilemma in the future.

Why shouldn’t I smear lubricant on my driver face? I want to hit it straight like those guys on the telly.

Why shouldn’t I use my foot to gently prod the ball into a clearer opening? My first shot was just a warm-up anyway.

Why shouldn’t I write down a five when I had a six? If my ball hadn’t hit that spike mark, it wouldn’t have fallen half a rotation short…

Hey, if no-one notices, I’m only cheating myself. And as it happens, that doesn’t make me feel as bad as I thought it would.

The nature of golf, certainly at the professional level, would imply that cheating will never be a mainstream issue. Even though the rewards are vast, they aren’t worth the considerable risk. But away from the cameras, where the ethical decisions are more difficult to monitor, allowing yourself the psychological reward of unearned success is far less risky, and therefore far more likely.

So, the next time you’re playing with me and I whip out the Vaseline, just remember: it’s only to help me feel good.

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