Sport - Jason Cowley peers into the darkness that is golf

A golfer may cheat at life, but woe betide him if he cheats on the job

"For a while I lost sight of Jordan Baker, and then in midsummer I found her again. At first I was flattered to go places with her, because she was a golf champion, and everyone knew her name. Then it was something more. I wasn't actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity. The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something - most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don't in the beginning - and one day I found what it was. When we were on a house party together up in Warwick, she left a borrowed car out in the rain with the top down, and then lied about it - and suddenly I remembered the story about her that had eluded me that night at Daisy's. At her first big golf tournament there was a row that nearly reached the newspapers - a suggestion that she had moved her ball from a bad lie in the semi-final round. The thing approached the proportions of a scandal - then died away. A caddy retracted his statement, and the only other witness admitted that he might have been mistaken. The incident and the name had remained together in my mind."
F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

There was a nice exchange at the end of a recent discussion between Ian McEwan and Christopher Hitchens at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, during which McEwan spoke of the deviant and pornographic preoccupations of his early fiction. Someone in the audience asked him if there was any subject "too dark" even for him to write about. McEwan peered into the audience, paused, and then said: "Golf."

He is not alone in finding something ineffably other about golf. The left, for instance, has long been uneasy about a game that for too long sought to exclude women, people of colour and Jews. Even today, there is a feeling that many of the more conservative clubs of the American Deep South would rather not have African Americans among their membership. Their desire to exclude is more covert than during the Fifties and Sixties, but it remains.

There are, too, barriers to entry: unlike football or basketball, you need money to play golf - for the clothes and the equipment. You need time and somewhere to play, especially as many local authorities have banned golfers from hitting balls in public spaces.

All this is to be regretted because most golfers take pride in playing by the rules - once they are out on the course, that is. Cricket once had an ethic and indeed aesthetic of fair play - it's just not cricket, old chap - but today it is golf that more than any other sport is in thrall to etiquette and codes of conduct. Every club has its own local rules governing what you can and cannot do while out on the course - and golfers take a special pride in honouring these as well as the wider rules of the game. They may cheat at life. They may cheat on their wives. But they would never cheat at golf.

I have always found this strange, but perhaps I just don't understand the game. The European Tour is at present in a broil over whether Colin Montgomerie - good old chubby "Monty" - violated the spirit of the game at a March tour event in Indonesia. Monty's crime was to replace his ball incorrectly after play was suspended during a rainstorm. He has since been criticised by fellow players and officials from the Asian Tour. He has apologised and donated the £24,000 prize money he won in Indonesia to charity. For some, any gesture of contrition is received as an admission of guilt. "Giving his money to charity was a nice gesture, but unfortunately all this calls into question his integrity," said one official, Gerry Norquist. "Every one of us playing this great game of golf assumes that the guy you are playing next has the integrity to play by the rules. Any time that is called into question, that is a serious matter."

Monty, remember, did no more than fail to mark his ball properly. He did not pick it up and place it in the hole or punch an opponent. Yet his reputation is stained - and the incident and his name will remain in the minds of golfers for a long time.