It was not somebody in the crowd. It was Steve Scott.
Huh? The first rule of conduct that every golfer learns is to never make a sound when another player is preparing to hit his next shot. What could be so important that it justified breaking the number one principle in golf's lengthy list of etiquette rules?
Steve was reminding Tiger to move his mark back the length of one putter head before replacing the ball. Unless you are intimately familiar with the rules of golf, it seems like a petty demand. C'mon, Steve, what's the big deal? So he hits a putt from four inches to the side of where he should have hit it? Who cares? Are you really that small, to make so tiny a demand for rules compliance at a moment like this?
In fact, it was not petty. Indeed, it was as far from petty as one can get.
With that comment, Steve Scott did something that was unthinkable to many athletes. In that moment, he turned down what could have been an easy victory, by helping his opponent. Not just any victory, mind you. A victory that would have been talked about for many years. A win over Tiger Woods. He had Tiger by the tail, and he let go.
The rules of golf, you see, are very specific. If you move your marker, but then forget to move it back, and then place your ball in the wrong spot and putt from there, the rules of golf provide a penalty. That penalty is loss of the hole. If Tiger had hit that putt from the incorrect spot, he would have lost the hole.
Would Tiger have remembered to move the marker back without Steve's reminder? One can never be sure, of course. But NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller observed that it appeared that Tiger, with his concentration focused on winning the hole, looked like he was about to overlook the technicality of moving his mark before replacing the ball if Steve had not reminded him.
Remember that Tiger was two holes down at that moment. If he had failed to move his mark, Tiger would have lost the hole and gone three down with two holes to play. Thus, it is entirely possible, if not probable, that all Steve Scott had to do to beat the best amateur golfer in history, who will probably go on to become the best golfer in history, in perhaps the greatest match in amateur golf history, was to do nothing at all. Nothing. If he had just kept his mouth shut, he might have won that match.
Nobody else would have even known if Steve realized that Tiger was about to forget to move his mark. Tiger, after all, a golfer known for his zealous attention to the smallest of details, apparently had forgotten. Surely Steve Scott could have claimed that he missed it, too.
But he did not miss it. What's more, even if he could have told everybody else that he missed it, he would have known that was not true. It was a classic ethical dilemma. Even though nobody would have known that he knew, Steve knew that he knew.
A human being's ethics are not determined by whether he does what is "right" when he knows that he will get caught and punished for doing the wrong thing. You get no moral credit for that.
You show your real self when it is you, and maybe only you, who knows what the right thing to do is. When you could do the wrong thing and never be "caught" doing it. When doing the wrong thing would help you, and doing the right thing will hurt you.
Surely Steve must have considered, at least for some small portion of that critical moment, the option of doing nothing and letting Tiger suffer the consequences of his own mistake, even if he has never admitted having such a thought. He would not be human if the thought did not tempt him. But he resisted that temptation, and stopped Tiger from taking an action that could have given Steve the win. Over a decade later, Kristi recalled, "That was easily my proudest moment as his girlfriend/caddie!
With the benefit of Steve's reminder, Tiger put his putter head next to the marker and moving it back four inches. He then replaced the ball, so that it was in the correct spot. Needing only a two-putt, but having seen the break from Steve's failed part putt, Tiger canned his birdie putt to pull within one hole with two to go.
On the next hole, Tiger hit the 35-foot putt is probably the most famous in U.S. Amateur history. Golf World lists it as one of the ten best shots in all of Tiger's illustrious career. If you are a golf fan, you have seen film of the putt curling into the hole and Tiger triumphantly pumping his fist in the air as he tied the match.
If Steve Scott had just kept his mouth shut, Tiger Woods would have never even had the chance to strike that classic putt on the seventeenth. That would have deprived not just Tiger, but golf fans everywhere, of one of the sport's great moments. By stopping Tiger from making a fatal mistake, Steve Scott showed that the game he played was bigger than him. If it was all about him, Steve should have just kept his mouth shut on the sixteenth green.
Sadly, the world barely noticed the gesture. The USA Today article the next day quite appropriately gushed with the lead, "Much of this will sound ridiculous, absurd, preposterous, fantastic and any other adjective that means you wouldn't believe it if you didn't see it. And it's all true." But Steve Scott's gesture of sportsmanship warranted nary a mention. Even the New York Times lengthy article, which was quite complimentary about Steve's display of guts and skill, failed to note it. When NBC did a ten year anniversary look back at the incredible match in its broadcast of the 2006 U.S. Amateur championship match, it said nothing about it.
It is as if it never happened. Perhaps casual golf fans did not notice. Perhaps serious golfers and golf fans, so sure of the integrity of their sport, think anybody would have done the same thing. Even Steve himself, deflecting praise for the gesture, recently said, "Any golfer with any sense of conscience would do the same."
Maybe. Maybe not. All we know is this. Steve Scott did it, even though he could have easily not done it and feigned lack of awareness. He should be remembered for it.
The match did not end on seventeen. Indeed, that famous putt, with its unfortunately non-famous prelude a hole earlier, merely tied the match. After halving the eighteenth, the last of the scheduled 36 holes, Tiger and Steve had nearly identical putts on the first hole of sudden death. But this time Tiger was just outside of Steve. Tiger almost hit his twenty foot putt.
Steve lined up his eighteen footer on almost the same line. This time he had the advantage of putting after his opponent. Using the knowledge of the break he gained from watching Tiger's putt, Steve sent his toward the hole. It was a solid putt. As it tracked toward the hole, Kristi recalled, "I thought it was going in for sure."
Right up to the hole, the putt looked like it was going to drop. But it somehow slid just to the right. Watching that putt head toward the hole might have been the last of the moments when Steve Scott could have thought he had beaten Tiger. Unless you count the moment just before his tee shot on the next hole, a par three, landed a foot or two right of its target, then bounced into the fringe instead of toward the hole. Tiger won with a par on that second hole of sudden death.
Tiger got his third straight U.S. Amateur. The look on his face after the 38th hole of the epic match had as many parts relief as it did celebration. He knew he had been in a fight. Afterwards, he said, "I've played better before in my life, but I've never been in this situation where I've played this well."
When asked which of his three U.S. Amateur victories was the sweetest, he picked the win over Scott. "This is by far the best. By far. Thirty-eight holes, the comeback, it's just an unbelievable feeling."
He did "retire" the next day. From amateur golf. Within a couple of months, he had his first PGA win. Now he has more than fifty, including over a dozen major championships. He is well on his way to confirming his status as the best golfer in history.
And Steve? Losing is tough enough to take. "Almost" is even worse, because you cannot help but think of all of the many little things that you did that might have changed the outcome if you had done them differently. But "I had it, but then I lost it" may be the most painful of all. For his supreme effort in Oregon in 1996, Steve Scott was rewarded with all of the most painful forms of losing.
Unlike his counterpart, he did not go on to a stellar career on the PGA tour. He did earn second team All American honors after returning to the Gators. When an official at the 1999 Western Amateur told him that nobody had ever won that tournament with his girlfriend or wife serving as his caddy, he set the course record in the medal qualifying, then won the tournament. After college, he played a bit on golf's minor league tours, winning the 2001 TELUS Vancouver Open. But he never secured a card for the PGA tour.
It is fair to say that Steve Scott's playing career peaked that day at Pumpkin Ridge in 1996. But what a peak it was, even if he did fall just short.
There is more to life than sports. Remember that caddy? She married Steve in 1999. On a golf course. She continued to caddy for him during his touring career. Steve and Kristi Scott, herself an accomplished golfer, are now both teaching professionals. Steve has caddied for Kristi in pro golf tournaments, too, and has encouraged her to pursue to her dreams as a singer and songwriter. With his help, she recently released her first album, "The New Girl in Town."
A happy marriage to your best friend, who was there for your biggest day in sports, is a pretty big accomplishment in itself. Despite what others sometimes speculate, the Scotts are pleased with their life since that day he had Tiger by the tail. "Most people think that when you go from Tour golf to club pro golf, then you've given up and almost feel sorry for you," Kristi says. "I can't disagree more. I think it takes more of a man to realize that there isn't just one path to get you from point A to point B and to make a drastic change like Steve did is very honorable."
Steve Scott was great that day in 1996, but not quite great enough. Tiger Woods was just a little bit better. That does not put Steve into a very exclusive club. A whole lot of golfers have been devoured by Tiger Woods already, and many more will have the experience in the future.
Two things do make Steve special. First, while many get steamrolled by Tiger, Scott grabbed him by the tail and pushed him to the brink before Tiger squeaked by. That alone should be enough to earn Steve a spot in golf history.
If that was not enough, we should not forget what happened on the sixteenth green at Pumpkin Ridge. Apparently all Steve Scott had to do to achieve the unachievable, a win over Tiger Woods, was to do nothing at all. In the spirit of sportsmanship, he refused to win that way.
After the match, the loser was asked about the historical significance of the match that crowned the U.S. Amateur's first winner of three straight. "As for getting in the way of history, I was attempting to stop history," he sighed. And to make some history of his own.
Steve Scott did not make the sort of history that he wanted to make that day. But the history of his sport, a sport that values integrity and sportsmanship even above winning, should always include a spot for him.
A Young Fan's Perspective
Golf is different than other games, because there are usually no referees, so the players have to enforce the rules themselves. Sometimes you have to call a penalty on yourself, even if nobody else noticed it. Golf is a game on integrity. Steve Scott is a perfect example of that. Even though Tiger Woods is my favorite golfer, I respect Steve Scott a lot for what he did that day.
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