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Golf’s civil war raises question: how much bad blood is good in sport?

Soccer fans used to applaud goals by opponents, and Irish rugby crowds stay silent for kickers, but a bit of hate-your-guts rivalry can be fun

Tiger tale: If not for Steve Scott's sportsmanship when competing against Tiger Woods, golf history might have played out very differently. Photograph: Robert Beck/Agency

There is a story from Tiger Woods’ last victory in the 1996 US Amateur Championship that captures the cloaked tension in golf between ruthlessness and courtesy. Nobody had ever won the title three times in a row, and after the morning round of the 36-hole final, Woods was five down to Steve Scott, a 19-year-old from Florida.

Woods had arrived at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club with an entourage that included his swing coach, Butch Harmon, his sports psychologist, his personal attorney and his agent-in-waiting. The CEOs of Nike and Titleist were stalking the fairways, poised to sign the greatest rainmaker in the history of the game.

Woods’ last day as an amateur was expected to be a glorious coronation, but Scott was unperturbed by his small supporting role in this grand opera, and he was still two up with three holes to play when he took a hand in history. Scott had holed a 10 foot putt for par, but Woods’ ball was inside him, and on his line, so he had asked him to mark it to the side.

As Scott was leaving the green he spotted from the corner of his eye that Woods hadn’t replaced his ball in the correct position. If he had allowed Woods to putt it was an automatic loss of hole, and Scott would have won the match on the spot, 3&2. Instead, he intervened.

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“Hey Tiger,” he called out. “You need to move your mark back.”

Woods holed the birdie putt to win the hole, and he won the last two holes to be crowned champion, but he never acknowledged Scott’s act of sportsmanship: not on the next tee box, or in his acceptance speech, or in his post-round interviews on TV.

Only in golf, would Scott’s intervention be regarded as the normal and natural thing to do. In what other sport does your opponent stop you from beating yourself?

In golf, just like in every other sport, the great champions have always been killers. Earl Woods described his son – lovingly, proudly – as “a trained assassin.” But the game was always able to accommodate those kind of players without bending itself out of shape, and surrendering anything that was fundamental to its identity.

In professional tournaments, just like in your Sunday morning four ball, good shots are acknowledged by your playing partners. People who forget their manners every time they buy a coffee know how to behave in the company of other golfers on the course. It is peculiar and precious.

Gripping: Has the beef between Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy made the gold more tasty? Photograph: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

In the modern world of professional sport, though, that feels quaint, doesn’t it? Elsewhere on the sporting globe courtesies are scarce. Nobody dwells on the deficit. Cut-throat winners are the alpha of the species, endlessly celebrated for their ruthlessness, and selfishness. Playing within the rules, or winning with grace are not essential.

In that context, golf’s ongoing civil war is an interesting test of the game’s norms. On one level, the escalating bitchiness and bitterness between the LIV golfers and everybody else has been a compelling soap opera. The playground tiff between Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed in Dubai last week elevated a so-what early season tournament into a riveting spectacle. Without a drop of blood being spilt, it was a bare-knuckle fight.

Rory McIlroy on blanking Patrick Reed: ‘I’m living in reality. I don’t know where he’s living’Opens in new window ]

Even people who love golf would say that the professional game is swamped with chumminess, and that there aren’t enough hate-your-guts rivalries. So, even if you abhor everything that Saudi Arabia is trying to achieve with “sportswashing,” the professional game has been electrified by Greg Norman and his battalion of disrupters. The shoot-out between McIlroy and Reed hit the back of golf’s throat like a swig of poteen.

But where does it end? How much bad blood is good? The Ryder Cup is golf’s biannual bear-pit. The players are hugely invested in it and work themselves into a state; so do the galleries. At Whistling Straits two years ago, though, the American crowd behaved like college kids on spring break in Acapulco, and the atmosphere was toxic. It was a throwback to Brookline and Kiawah Island, and it felt like it had gone too far. The team captains recognised this too: that week, the event had been bent out of shape.

Golf and snooker are the only sports in the world where the crowd applauds every good shot. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

Rory McIlroy makes statement win in Dubai over rival Patrick ReedOpens in new window ]

It’s funny the things that stick in your mind. During the early stages of the pandemic, eirsport filled its empty schedules with archive episodes of Match of the Day, including the very first one from August 1964. The only game featured on the show was between Liverpool and Arsenal at Anfield, and when the visitors scored the strangest thing happened: there was a round of applause, from all corners of the ground.

I waited for the commentator to pass some remark, but Kenneth Wolstenholme carried on describing the goal. The round of applause, at the time, mustn’t have been remarkable. So, when did that change? Can you imagine it now?

Some stuff is worth saving, no matter how quaint it feels. The silence for kickers at Thomond Park and the Aviva and other major rugby venues in Ireland is not common all over the rugby globe, but it is scrupulously observed here. If a boorish drunk or an ignorant day-tripper breaks the silence at Thomond, the PA announcer issues a quick reminder about the protocol, followed by applause. All kinds of bedlam is going on between the white lines, but the kicker is afforded that courtesy and the crowd wears it as a badge of honour.

The GAA doesn’t have that tradition, and it is rarely an issue, but in the All-Ireland club hurling final recently TJ Reid was jeered every time he addressed a free for Ballyhale; in a great match it was a bum note. Why do it?

On the 25th anniversary of his match with Tiger Woods, Steve Scott wrote a book about that experience and how it impacted his life in golf. The title consumed the whole front cover: “Hey Tiger, you need to move your mark back.” That short sentence stood between him and one of the most unlikely triumphs in golf. But if he hadn’t said it, what would the victory have been worth?

Still no word from Tiger.