Gotcha-Gamesmanship and The Cult of Competition


Golf is a sport, sure.  But it’s a game too.  I’ve spent too much of my life thinking that these things needed to be mutually exclusive, and the revelation is proving to be a painful one.

I guess I wanted golf to be special;  for it to hold some sacred place in both me and in society, and to transcend the petty, silly, and diabolical whims of those who compete classlessly elsewhere.

Everyone has their own idea of sportsmanship.  And that’s great.  It truly should be a personal definition.  It’s the sort of human litmus test that can’t be cheated.  It’s innate to certain people and to certain sports, and truly compels a visceral response from those who bear witness to it.

Sportsmanship, in its truest form, is the engine of competition.  It’s the bread and butter and the icing on the cake both. It’s the sprinkles when it can be, and the raw egg when it has to be.

But then there’s gamesmanship.  This is the recognition between two players of each other’s skill, and the who’ll-blink-first meta-layer of competition.  The ability of these athletes is unquestionable, and gamesmanship is just a matter of knowing a head-fake is fake, or catching the telling eyes of a quarterback before a throw.

While golf is not explicitly in tune with gamesmanship at the professional level, (due to the solitary nature of the scoring), there is a bit of psyche work that does occur…especially among those familiar with one another.  Laying up to entice a greedy player to try a low percentage shot is one example, but even this isn’t some active form of sabotage.

Gamesmanship in disc golf is a lot like a high level poker match where you already know what’s up someone’s sleeve, and it’s your own personal execution that will determine the outcome.

But, at the deepest, darkest end of gamesmanship, which borders the edges of unsportsmanlike conduct, lies a grey area we call “Gotcha Gamesmanship”.  This is the IRS of the sports world, where the perpetrators will always have plausible deniability, but they’ll also be very hard to forget.

Am Worlds in 2021 was a dream.  Sure, I complained incessantly about the humidity, and was fairly certain that my health was going to be a real issue around mid-day on Wednesday, but the experience was, by and by, a positive one.

However, (and this is a big however), there were stories relayed to me by other competitors that made me wonder if disc golf had strayed too far from the sportsmanship of golf and into the sort of gotcha gamesmanship  that the IRS dabbles in, making you cross all your t’s and dot all your i’s lest you wish to incur penalties – even though they hav the knowledge and the cognizance to just let you do it right the first time.

Sure, this is going to always be an issue in bureaucracy, but at Am Worlds?  In the D Pool of MA1, where everyone is just trying to do better than 200th place?

This is where the we separate the classy from the clownish.

The first incident to reach me, during a cool down session in the parking lot at Bill Frederick Park, cold beverage in hand, was about a walk from one basket to the next pad, and how that walk would take the card by an alternate tee-pad for the following hole.  As the story goes, one gentleman stops at this first pad that they come to, (with the official Am Worlds pad 30 foot yonder), and sits down on his cart, as he’s not the first to tee.

The first to tee then…well…tees off…and the conniving cart-sitter then calls him for a misplay.

Without a doubt, in any self-officiated sport, the onus is on the individual to be abreast of the rules and the situation.  That’s the long and short of it.

But the humanity of the situation is just plain icky.

Then comes the kicker – A day and a half later, as the same crew is gathered in a similar parking lot, with similar concerns about sunburn and hydration, the news hits that the cart-sitting sultan of sabotage was a fucking local, and that he had openly admitted to intending to see how many penalties he could create in this situation.

This is not sportsmanship.  This is not besting your opponent when they’re playing their best.  This is win at all costs.  And win at all costs is far more often associated with sports in which the offense and defense are on the same field at the same time, actively working to undermine each other.

Golf is not that, nor should it be.

Golf may not be strictly a game or strictly a sport.  Rather, it’s more of a comparative athletic competition, in which the participants look to best a common course and compares scores.  Of course there are instances of throttling the pace of play to your advantage, particularly on a competitive lead card, but it’s not tackling somebody, nor is it even as aggressive as picking them off at 1st.

And it’s certainly not the hidden ball trick.

In golf, the accomplishments, (and the assholery), belong to the individual, and that’s the justice of it all.  Your behavior is just as much a part of your game as your putting is, and if you’re not lights-out on the latter, everyone is going to remember you for the former.

It’s a selfish game that has you rooting for your competitors to be selfish too, but in a way that respects you as a competitor.

Playing a game of “gotcha” golf belies the insecurities of the aggressor, and says much more about them than about the field around them.

You should want the stiffest competition you can get, because the true value of your own performance is determined by the quality of the players that you’re up against.

Golf is as comparative as it is competitive, and you make no personal gains by sitting idly by and allowing a competitor to fail.

No one should want to raise the trophy over a guy who twisted his ankle on hole 2, or who got a phone call about a death in the family heading into the final 9.  Nobody likes winning on a technicality, especially if that technicality is the equivalent of not telling a pool player that sinking the 8-ball ends the game while watching them line it up toward the corner pocket.

In the end, are we using our skill and our determination to best the course, or are we relying on connivery to dull the nausea that comes with our own insecurities?

The choice is up to you as a player, and those around you will not soon forget your decision.