On a warm Monday night in late August, an oddly cheerful Mark
McCumber flew into Akron on a private plane. McCumber, nearly 44
years old, was in his 18th year on the Tour, and his golf game
was about as good as it had ever been. His side business,
designing golf courses, was thriving, and his family was too. He
was about to play in one of his favorite tournaments, the NEC
World Series of Golf, on a track he liked, the South Course of
the Firestone Country Club. His life was, to use one of
McCumber's favorite words, blessed.
Tuesday was uneventful, Wednesday's pro-am was pleasant, and
Thursday, the first round of the tournament, started nicely.
McCumber was paired with Greg Norman, and he was nervous about
that because the two Floridians--McCumber has spent most of his
life in Jacksonville and Norman, the transplanted Australian,
lives in Hobe Sound--had not played together since McCumber spoke
critically and publicly about Norman's proposal for an
international, stars-only golf tour.
But McCumber plays his best when he's nervous--he's a fidgety man
who talks quickly and endlessly when he's not whistling--and
through the first six holes of the round he was one under par
and playing solidly. Meanwhile, Norman, modern golf's dominant
figure and arguably its best player, was level par.
Then came the 7th hole, a par-3 of 220 yards. McCumber took
three putts for a bogey, and his life has not been the same
since. For it was on that green, according to Norman, that
McCumber cheated by plucking a tiny clump of grass from the
green and smoothing the turf with his thumb. McCumber refutes
the charge. He says Norman is mistaken about what he thinks he
saw. But since Thursday, Aug. 24, McCumber's nights have been
interrupted by bouts of sleeplessness, while Norman has had no
such problems. In a world of rampant lawlessness, the fuss over
a few blades of grass may seem quaint, but golf is a universe
unto itself. The professional golfer's society is one of laws,
and the touring pro would rather be convicted of tax evasion
than charged with cheating.
Norman says that while McCumber prepared to putt an eight-footer
for par, he bent down, brought his right hand to a spot three
feet in front of his ball and picked up with his thumb and index
finger grass loosened by another player's cleat but still
attached to the green. Norman says McCumber then fixed the
wounded spot with his thumb and tossed away the grass, creating
a smooth putting surface. In Norman's telling McCumber violated
the rule of golf that prohibits a player from touching the line
of his putt, except when fixing a ball mark or removing a loose
impediment, such as a twig or a bug--which is what McCumber says
he was doing. He says that he squatted like a catcher, picked up
a small black insect with a hard shell with his forefinger and
thumb, dropped the insect and picked it up again and tossed it
aside, all within the rules of golf.
Norman, livid, summoned a PGA Tour rules official, and Mike Shea
arrived as the players were walking up the 9th fairway. Shea, a
highly regarded veteran official, heard Norman's charges and
McCumber's defense, and decided, as the rules of golf dictate,
that in the absence of other evidence the benefit of the doubt
must go to the accused. In the scorer's tent after the
round--McCumber shot 68 and Norman 73--Norman's fury persisted. By
way of protest Norman refused to sign McCumber's scorecard, so
Shea signed it for McCumber instead, as the rules allow. Norman
said loudly, "I'm out of here." Over the next two hours, Shea,
among others, prevailed on Norman to finish the tournament. In
the end he did and won.
Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner and a skillful
politician, has found a way to believe both men. "I think Greg
sincerely believes he saw a violation, but I also believe Mark
McCumber did not fix a spike mark," he says. Norman dismisses
such evenhandedness. He says he is "110 percent sure" that
McCumber cheated, then lied about it. "I'm five paces away,"
Norman says, speaking of the incident in the present tense weeks
later, "and I'm watching." As Norman, and others, frame the
issue, either McCumber cheated or Norman tarnished a man's
reputation with a false charge.
When McCumber speaks about his accuser and the accusation, it is
not with anger. "This is his deal, not mine," McCumber says,
avoiding using Norman's name. "I don't want to get into a fight
with him. I have a feeling of unsettledness at a time of the
year when I want to feel relaxed. I never expected something
like this to happen. But I have to ask myself, What is a
tragedy? This is not a tragedy. This has been hurtful."
Norman has received calls supporting his actions from several
prominent people in the golf community. But nobody has come
forth to corroborate Norman's charge. Nor has anyone come
forward in support of McCumber's claim. After the conclusion of
play that Thursday, McCumber and Shea scoured the 7th green
looking for the discarded, dead insect but found nothing.
Finchem has no interest in pursuing the matter. He says the
rules of golf have spoken, equitably and with finality. But
others feel there is too much at stake to let the matter go
unresolved. Sometimes with facts, often without, they have
assigned a reputation to McCumber and a motive to Norman and
have debated the fine points of the case. For instance, is it
believable that McCumber would pick up an insect with the tips
of his fingers? Why wouldn't he just flick it away? On the other
hand, if McCumber did pluck grass, would he be so bold as to
throw the damning evidence into the air?
After the tournament McCumber went to Finchem and asked, "Have I
ever done anything that would suggest I don't respect the
rules?" The two men concluded that he had not. But the fact is,
whether it is fair or not, McCumber does have a reputation among
some of his touring brethren as somebody who is loose with the
rules. It is a reputation he has been saddled with since his
McCumber joined the Tour in the summer of 1978, at the age of
26, and his route there was wholly his own. As a teenager he was
one of the best junior players in the country, but he turned
down all the college scholarships and moved instead to Brooklyn,
where, as a Jehovah's Witness, he worked as a missionary. In his
late teens and early 20's, from 1969 through 1973, McCumber
played virtually no golf. But after getting married in 1974, he
concluded that golf would be the best way to support his family.
He started playing in the rough-and-tumble Florida mini-tours in
the mid-1970s, then finally qualified for the Tour on his sixth
visit to the Q school.
In July 1978 McCumber arrived at the Greater Milwaukee Open, the
second event of his PGA Tour career. He was skilled but raw, and
practically nobody knew him. Carrying his golf bag that week was
a Tour caddie named Bill Hubbard. On the 10th hole of the second
round, McCumber drove his ball under a small tree, and what
happened next caused a disagreement that clings to McCumber
still. Hubbard said McCumber swung and missed and failed to
count the stroke. McCumber said he was taking a practice swing.
After the round McCumber and Hubbard went to see Jack Tuthill,
then the Tour's director of tournament golf, to settle the
dispute. Tuthill asked McCumber if his intention was to hit the
ball during the swing in question. McCumber said no. Hubbard
disagreed. Hubbard said he could not work for McCumber and quit.
Success came quickly for McCumber. He won the 12th tournament in
which he played, in 1979 at Doral, in Miami. He came to the
final event of the '79 season, the Pensacola Open, needing to
make a check to secure 60th place on the money list. Back then
only the top 60 players retained their playing privileges for
the following year. Bill Kratzert says he saw McCumber move his
ball noticeably in front of his marker on a two-foot putt on the
12th green in the second round. McCumber made the putt and the
cut--and finished 60th on the money list, $48 ahead of No. 61,
Kratzert went to the late Dan Sikes, who, like McCumber, was
also from Jacksonville. "I said, 'Dan, somebody's got to show
him how to mark his ball because it's only going to get worse,'"
Kratzert remembers. Kratzert also told McCumber that he was not
marking his ball properly. McCumber recalls Kratzert advising
him on the proper way to mark a ball and says the only advice he
received from Sikes was "if somebody's standing on top of you
when you mark your ball, you go right back and stare at him when
In 1980, again at Pensacola, McCumber was paired with Hubert
Green for the first two rounds. After the first round, Green
says, he reported to an official that McCumber had repeatedly
failed to properly mark his ball. McCumber does not remember
Green calling for an official but does remember Green giving him
"fatherly advice" about how to mark his ball. Told of McCumber's
recollection of the day, Green says, "Would you call in a police
officer to give some fatherly advice?" Green was not surprised
when the Tour official took no action. "He said what they all
say: 'It's your word against his.'"
In 1983 at the Anheuser-Busch Classic, on the 15th green of the
third round, McCumber chipped a ball that finished on the green
in a small depression, according to his playing partner, Mark
Lye. But by the time McCumber was through marking his ball and
preparing to putt, Lye says, the ball was no longer in the
depression. Lye called in a rules official, and McCumber agreed
to move the ball back into the depression. "After the round,
Mark's wife came up to me and said, 'How dare you even think
that my husband would cheat,'" Lye says. "And I said to her,
'Paddy, I like Mark, but I don't think he was going to cheat, he
was going to cheat.'"
McCumber says he did not intentionally move the ball out of the
depression. "The most peculiar thing about it," McCumber says,
"is that later Mark said to me, 'I knew you were going to do
that.' And I said, 'For heaven's sake, if you knew I was going
to do it, why didn't you say something before I did it?'"
Reviewing these three ball-marking disputes from the early part
of his career, McCumber says, "Things get more microscopic when
you're on Tour. I think it would be fair to say that over the
course of a career you learn to be more precise in every aspect
of the game, including your understanding of the rules."
But by 1983 McCumber's reputation among certain players and golf
observers was sealed: He was a player you had to watch. In 1985
at Doral, McCumber was leading by two strokes over Tom Kite by
the time he reached the 18th tee on Sunday. McCumber hit his
drive way to the right, and CBS's Ken Venturi, basing his
comments on a report from an on-course cameraman, stated that
the ball had become lodged in a palm tree. During the chaotic
search for the ball, McCumber was urged to climb the tree to
search for the ball. He refused, saying the ball was hit far
right of the tree.
A ball bearing McCumber's mark was found by a marshal 40 yards
right of the tree, sitting down in heavy rough, and McCumber
went on to win. Still, throughout golf, there are people who
believe that an outrageous act of cheating occurred on that
hole. There is, though, no evidence. Later, somebody went up in
the palm tree and recovered several balls, none of them
McCumber's. Says McCumber of the incident, "CBS wouldn't give me
the benefit of the doubt." Without a direct word being said,
McCumber's reputation had reached the airwaves and the public.
In more than 30 interviews with Tour officials, caddies,
tournament workers, television executives and commentators, golf
writers, and touring professionals other than Norman, SI found
only one other incident in which McCumber was suspected of
violating a rule of golf. That came in 1990, in the third and
final round of the rain-shortened Byron Nelson Classic, on the
12th green. Davis Love III, McCumber's playing partner, thought
McCumber repaired something on the line of his putt that was not
a ball mark. Love called in a rules official. While the official
was responding to Love's call, McCumber's ball, set down for him
to putt, was moved by the wind and the green's slope, and the
repair in question was no longer on the line of the putt. Love
decided not to pursue the matter, although he believed McCumber
had broken a rule.
That does not mean Love considers McCumber a cheater. "You can
examine just about any player out here, and if you look hard
enough, you're going to find guys who once didn't like a drop
the player took, or how he marked his ball, or something," Love
Some touring pros and golf observers have been critical of
Norman, saying that it is impossible to be 100% certain and that
his dispute with McCumber should have been handled more
discreetly. Others have said that his actions at Firestone were
rooted in McCumber's rejection of the World Golf Tour. McCumber
was widely quoted as saying, "Who does Norman think he is, God?"
"What happened at Firestone has nothing to do with the World
Tour," Norman says. "My job is to protect the game of golf. I
can't stand by and watch somebody not play by the rules of golf."
"If Greg Norman saw cheating and didn't say anything, he'd be
cheating himself," says Green.
For as long as he has been on Tour, Norman has been aware of
McCumber's reputation for not being fastidious about the rules.
However, he never saw any violation until he played with
McCumber in the fourth round of the '92 Buick Open. There he saw
McCumber illegally improve his lie but said nothing to McCumber
or tournament officials. Asked why, Norman says, "Sometimes you
don't want to believe what you saw." Although McCumber has no
recollection of the incident, it was then that Norman began to
watch McCumber closely.
No one on Tour purports to know Mark McCumber that well. He's
cheerful on the golf course almost to the point of
unbelievability, and most nights he takes dinner alone in his
room. In a three-hour interview he raises the names of his
family constantly, a reminder that anything that is critical of
him will hurt his family as well. He sends his best to your
spouse and children, even though he has never met them. He
quotes the Bible frequently. Those who know him know he would
not cheat, McCumber says. His Creator knows, McCumber says, that
he would not cheat. In the meantime all there is, is a serious
accusation, a denial and the testimony of experts.
"In late August we get this black insect, Ataenius spretulus,
beetle family," says Brian Mabie, the course superintendent at
Firestone. "It's about the size of a pencil eraser, and it hangs
out near the putting cups, where it's cool and dark. If you had
one in your line, you'd pick it up with your fingers. As soon as
McCumber said he picked up a bug, I knew what he was talking
Greg Norman never saw a black bug on the 7th green of the South
Course of the Firestone Country Club in the first round of the
1995 World Series of Golf. He saw a tiny, flying tuft of grass.
He saw an incident of cheating; he's certain of it. To hell with
damaged reputations. Norman says he cannot stand idly by and
watch his game, the game of golf, be defaced.
"and I'm watching."
had broken a rule.