Golf and the honor system

We’ve been preparing a story for the fall issue of the magazine that will discuss the honor system as it exists at VMI and in Sigma Nu. The story will include examples of cultures and subcultures that operate with a system of trust and peer accountability, just as the honor system operates within VMI, Sigma Nu, and a select number of other schools with strong systems of self-governance.

One of the classical examples of a functioning honor system comes from the game of golf. Here are some excerpts from two recent stories on the subject, one from The New York Times and the other from ESPN.

On a golf course in Scotland that employs an “honor box”:

One tradition is unlikely to be altered. A small sign on the outside of the clubhouse reads “Pay Green Fees Here.” Below the sign is a metal slot, where golfers drop envelopes with their money. The course is run on the honor system, with no attendant in sight.

“The system works well because it reflects the traditions within golf of honesty and integrity,” said Hamish Grey, the chief executive of the Scottish Golf Union, which oversees the men’s amateur game here.

And ESPN on a famous case from the 1925 U.S. Open:

More than 80 years after Bobby Jones’ ball barely budged, the story is still told to show golf is a game of honor. The great amateur was competing in the 1925 U. S. Open when, unbeknownst to anyone but himself, Jones’ ball moved ever so slightly as he addressed it in the rough.

There were no referees to call a foul, no officials to slap him with a penalty. Jones’ playing companion, Walter Hagen, didn’t see the infraction, nor did his caddie or any spectators. The tournament title hung in the balance, but when the round was completed, it soon became known that Jones had assessed himself a 1-stroke penalty.

The ball moving did not help him any, nor was it any great violation. But it happened, and those are the rules. So Jones thought nothing of it. That stroke cost him outright victory, and he then went on to lose a 36-hole playoff to Willie Macfarlane.

Jones was asked about his decision by a reporter after the round. His response? “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.”

Read the full story here.

If you know of any other groups or subcultures that live by a system of mutual trust and accountability, share them with us in the comments section below.


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