The Golfer, the Leaf, and a Crisis of Conscience

The Story: A young pro-golfer could potentially lose out on millions of dollars because of his conscience—and a leaf.

The Background: Blayne Barber didn’t know if he moved the leaf. But his brother Shayne, who serves as Blayne’s caddy, was certain. “I was standing right there,” Shayne says. “It didn’t move.”

Rule 13-4c is professional golf’s peculiar policy that prohibits a player from touching any loose impediment in a hazard—even a single leaf—as part of the maneuver to dislodge the ball.

“Unlike a criminal conviction that requires something beyond reasonable doubt, golf’s rules only allow for two options – certainty and illegality,” says Golf Channel columnist Jason Sobel. “Which is to say, if a golfer isn’t sure whether he broke a rule, then he’s presumed guilty of breaking that rule.”

As Sobel notes, “There are no gray areas in golf’s draconian rules. Either [Barber] missed the leaf and signed for a score higher than he really had or he brushed the leaf and signed for an incorrect score, which would result in disqualification.”

After conferring with two rule officials, Barber decided not to mark a penalty on his scorecard. But three days later the incident still bothered him: Did he move the leaf or not?

Although the young golfer is getting married in December and needed the money and job security of the PGA Tour, his conscience kept bothering him.

“This is something I prayed a lot about,” he says. “I continued to not find peace about it.”

[. . . ]

“It just goes so much deeper than golf and my PGA Tour card and my career,” he explains. “I didn’t want there to be this little chasm in between me and God or me and this thing that I always thought would be on my conscience and weigh on me. I knew that ultimately when that is weighing on me, I had to just come forward and do what was in my heart. That’s way more important than short-term success.”

Exactly one week after he may or may not have touched the leaf, Barber made his decision. He called the PGA Tour on November 2 to report that he had signed an incorrect scorecard. Although he had advanced in the tournament, his failure to penalize himself that additional stroke resulted in his signing a lower scorecard, which results in disqualification.

Why It Matters: The twenty-two year old was one of the world’s top amateurs when he turned pro earlier this year. His decision means he’ll potentionally miss out on competing for millions of dollars. But Barber knows there are some things more important than money.

“I don’t know why all this is happening,” Blayne admits. “I don’t know what it will entail in the future, but maybe it will have an effect on someone, maybe someone will learn from it. It’s a lot bigger than me. I just wanted to do my part to make it right and clear my conscience.”

“I just feel peace about it,” Barber adds. “Doing the right thing and doing what I know is right in my heart and in my conscience is more important than short-term success.”

  • Noah

    Great story Joe. Proverbs 11:3a- The integrity of the upright guides them

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  • Private

    I’m afraid I have to demure. This poor guy had absolutely no positive knowledge that he did anything wrong, from any source whatsoever. Strictly from what info the article provides, he had no reason to doubt his original score. This does not come off to me as a great act of “integrity” but rather a concern to relieve one’s conscience from a fantastical fear brought about by legalism – afterall, the best way to be sure you are NEVER given anything un-deservedly is just to assume you ALWAYS do something wrong enough to merit punishment (and starve as a result). This may salve the conscience, but it’s legalism pure and simple and is in fact a very BAD example for the Grace of the Gospel. I sure hope he’s able to fulfill his other requirements of providing for his family after this act of self-justification.

    • Joe Carter

      In rereading my summary of the article it seems I may have left out one key detail. On the day of the incident, Blayne chose—in keeping with the rules of golf—to assess himself a penalty for moving the leaf. But he thought it was a one-stroke penalty. Later when he realized it was a two-stroke penalty he had to make a decision: Pretend that the incident never happened, even though he had already taken off a stroke for moving the leaf or admit that since he had already counted the penalty against himself, admit that he had scored the card incorrectly. It was making the incorrect entry on the scorecard which disqualified him, not moving the leaf.

      Also I think we have to be careful not to make this a law/grace issue. The rules of golf and the law of Moses may have some similarities, but they are not exactly parallel. Playing a game requires following the rules—especially in a professional competition where there is much at stake. If Blayne had circumvented the rules, he would have been cheating other players. That is why I think his action was a model of integrity. He decided to play by the strict rules of his chosen sport even though it cost him dearly.

  • Mary Sargent

    I am new to reading at the GC site. But following Tim Keller to various places…this article is wonderful. I am a former golfer and know the rules are unusually rigid and…odd. What a tender conscience that responded well. I hope God gives him favor on the Tour. He walks well.

  • Terri

    I have to comment since “private” has stated something of which he/she has absolutely no knowledge of. I know this young man very well and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is not swallowed up in legalism. He knows and lives the grace of God every day and showed plenty of integrity in this situation. Even though his brother, who is a golfer, tried to convince him that he hadn’t touched the leaf, he did what was right by assessing the penalty on himself if he had any doubt. He prayed and sought counsel on what to do, but he never had peace. He now moves forward with a clear conscience and God will bless his faithfulness in doing what he felt was right. He knows intimately the love of Christ and strives to live that out in every decision. I, as his mother, am very proud of how he handled this situation and pray that we can all learn from his honesty and not question motives or methods. May Christ receive all the glory for this and any situation a child of His may find themselves in!!!

    • Pete

      I am a Christian. I was once a fine golfer. In fact, I earned a scholarship to Auburn in 1972. A well-educated guess tells me that a higher-than-one-would-expect percentage of tournament players have faced at least one dilemma which closely parallels Blayne’s. No matter how one handles the situation, God will forgive a truly contrite spirit, assuming contrition follows poor judgment. However, the competitive, human heart – even that of a forgiven Christian – sometimes never completely forgives itself. One who judges poorly in a situation like this, even following contrition and after receiving God’s forgiveness, is sometimes – not always, but sometimes – tormented by the forgiven lapse at the most inopportune time. What I get from the article, and from following Blayne’s career and personal development closely the past several years through conversations with his Auburn coaches and teammates, is that Blayne resolved this for ALL the right reasons. His was not an act of self-justification or “bidding for God’s favor in the future.” His was the act of a true believer whose future, coincidentally, potentially could have rested, at least in part, on handling this situation in a Godly manner. He has done just that. He can compete in the future with a clear conscience. More importantly, he can live and compete knowing that he has the peace which surpasses all human understanding. While Christians and golfers should be proud of Blayne, they should also be HAPPY for him.

  • Daniel Patterson

    Knowing that the final round of golf on the pro tour is played on the Christian Sabbath will his conscious allow him to violate the Lord’s Day? I will be more impressed if he does not turn pro because it violates the Lord’s Day than I am that his conscious bothered him about a stroke penalty. Isn’t it typical of Christians today in all sports to have more respect for the laws of a game than for the laws of God. Trust and obey.

  • Private

    Well, at the risk of wading in more…

    I understand what you mean by not reporting the correct 2-stroke penalty, and that reporting this after the score-card is complete forces disqualification. But that’s not what my comment was originally about – it was about the fact this golfer felt he HAD to report he moved the leaf, with NO evidence that he did.

    If the rules of golf state “…if a golfer isn’t sure whether he broke a rule, then he’s presumed guilty of breaking that rule”, then the question remains why was this guy not certain he had NOT moved the leaf? What evidence is there he did, given that his caddy (presumably just as honest) said he did not? This is the cause for concern. If you read my original post, I flatly stated what should be pretty obviously my concern: “..the best way to be sure you are NEVER given anything un-deservedly is just to assume you ALWAYS do something wrong enough to merit punishment..”

    This poor young man was pushed into assuming he was guilty, contrary to any evidence, and this is my problem. If he was NOT guilty of moving the leaf, does not this indeed make him a liar for assuming he DID? Why is this a superior form of integrity? Why should he not have corrected his score card the other way and stated he was not guilty of the first violation to begin with?

    I’m sorry folks, but we live in a culture where Christian’s are presumed guilty right from the start, and we are pressured to assume a stance of “shame” on any number of issues, most usually without any justification. Those of us not fortunate enough to enjoy the benefits of elitism (whether of atheletics or ivory towers) face these kind of situations each day among collegues, neighbors, etc. I cannot afford to assume such a strict guilty-unless-proven-otherwise attitude (to someone else’s satisifcation to boot), especially when I have no reason to doubt otherwise.

    I’m merely trying to extrapolate this golf incident (silly as any sport actually is) to a wider ethical application, which I presume, afterall, is what this post’s author intended. I just disagree on the ethics being pushed. What may be good for golf (I doubt it) is not necessarily good for home. (Unless you happen to be plugged into the “safe” occupations, I suppose.)

    Just talk to any poor modern business man – all the regulations and “laws” they labor under make the rules of golf child’s play by comparison. But here’s the thing – the goal of all these regulations is precisely to create guilt, not to provide genuine guidelines, but to entrap. The rules are contradictory and serve only to empower the rules-maker. The only possible way to avoid guilt is to do nothing, otherwise you have to pick your poison. Good luck with that.

    Atheltics, seminaries, etc., may provide a safe-haven for some to live out fantasies of integrity, but the rest of us are stuck in the real world where doing the REALLY right thing can get you cursed by Christians as well.