Ben Wright: Slithery Slope

Of all my memories from broadcasting the Masters at the 15th hole of Augusta National, some of the fondest originated, oddly enough, during bathroom breaks. Invariably, whenever I shimmied down the ladder of the TV tower, I would run into old friends and take a few moments to chat, catching up on their lives and assessing the tournament.

Some of these acquaintances were rules officials who patrolled that area of the course. These men often had interesting stories about the day’s play—various incidents they had observed long before we TV people reported for duty—and I would mentally file these stories for use during the broadcast.

The 12th at Augusta National Golf Club

It was always a particular delight to talk with Joe Dey, the only man to serve as both executive director of the U.S. Golf Association and, later, commissioner of the PGA Tour. This most urbane of gentlemen was a walking encyclopedia on the Rules of Golf. As far as I know, no player ever questioned him on the subject—if Dey gave a rules decision, there could be no doubting its veracity.

In 1978, I was on break during rehearsal, having just announced Jack Nicklaus’ play at the par-5 15th. Dey greeted me, impeccably dressed as always, but looking as if he had just seen a ghost—his face was white as a sheet and beads of perspiration dotted his forehead. Naturally, I asked him what on earth was wrong.

The story Dey related was so shocking that I promised him I would not use it on the air. Attempting to reach the 15th green in two, Nicklaus had come up short and watched his ball roll down the slope to the edge of the water that fronted the putting surface. While waiting for Jack to reach the green, Dey had walked around the pond to make sure he had seen the ball stuck at water’s edge. (This was back when that slope was not shaved as closely as it is today, when no ball can possibly remain on the bank.)

It was clear to Dey that Nicklaus (who uncharacteristically was not a factor that year) planned to play the ball, which meant he would likely shed his right shoe and sock and submerge his back foot for a reasonable stance. Just then, Dey spied a gathering of venomous water moccasins lounging just below where Jack’s ball rested.

Sure enough, Nicklaus began to peel off his shoe and sock—to the delight of the gallery, but to the despair of poor Dey.

“I asked myself, ‘What should I do?’” he told me. “Had I the right to warn Nicklaus of his impending peril? I had heard well how vicious these cottonmouths could be. Or should I just be quiet and not interfere with play? It was all happening too quickly. I made the snap decision that I was there to observe and not influence play in any way, unless the Rules of Golf came into question.”

So Dey remained silent and Nicklaus played his shot quickly, with mud flying everywhere and his ball finishing inches from the hole for a tap-in birdie. Fortunately he stepped out of the water and up onto the green with a smile, blessedly unharmed. “I have never been so worried on a golf course in my life,” Dey told me in conclusion.

In recent years, televised golf has produced a rash of incidents in which self-proclaimed rules watchdogs call in perceived violations and influence the outcome. One of the game’s most controversial stories of 2005 resulted when Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger got involved in Michelle Wie’s professional debut, questioning the legality of a drop that ultimately lead to her disqualification.

But such an intrusion has never involved a player’s physical well-being. Did Dey act properly in deciding not to intervene? I don’t know, but I still shudder at the implications, wondering if a bear—even a Golden one—could have been felled by a serpent.