JOHN L. PITTS: Dispute clouds 4A golf match

“Well, it’s a mess, ain’t it, sheriff?”
“If it ain’t, it’ll do until a mess gets here.”
– No Country for Old Men

That’s how I have come to feel about the Class 4A golf championships last week in Amory.
My exact words, after Brandon Speck of the Monroe Journal called Wednesday afternoon to tell me about the match and its disputed finish: “What a mess.”
Nothing I have heard since then has changed my mind about that.
And I have heard quite a bit, from both sides.
As it stands, Itawamba AHS won the state championship by two strokes over New Albany.
There’s a dispute about one of those strokes – but, being golf, it’s way more complicated than that.
It boils down to this: An Itawamba golfer took a swing while trying to deal with an errant shot that wound up in some brush on the No. 8 hole on the second day of the match.
He told Speck after the match that it was a practice swing.
New Albany’s coach takes the position that the player whiffed and then failed to record the stroke on his scorecard.
At the tournament, the officials ultimately accepted the player’s version of events. New Albany has appealed that ruling to the MHSAA, the state association that oversees high school athletics.
In the rules of golf, this isn’t just a matter of one stroke. If the player knowingly signed an incorrect scorecard – and that could be proved – then he’d be disqualified. That would make New Albany the state champion, even if they lost the competition on the field, as it were, by two strokes.
It’s a mess, ain’t it? Yup.
Ruling on the way
It was initially expected that the MHSAA’s executive committee would have a decision on Friday. Now it appears a ruling will come today.
The delay has fueled some speculation that the state’s old-boy network is rallying to New Albany’s case. Just as good an explanation, it seems to me, is that the MHSAA braintrust was tied up with the state baseball championships at the end of last week, needed some time to unravel the deal and figured they could better deal with the question on Sunday.
I have no special knowledge in this matter. Everything I know is what I have been told.
But I called a friend, who plays golf and writes about golf and pals around with pro golfers, to get his read.
“It’s hard to see how they can overturn the result on the course unless there’s an independent witness who can contradict the player’s version of events,” my friend said. “And if the player did something wrong that nobody saw, that’s something he’ll just have to live with.”
Folks on both sides are, understandably, upset. Some are upset with the Journal for its coverage of the story, and for naming the player in question.
“He’s been labeled a cheater,” Itawamba principal Trae Wiygul insisted in a conversation with me on Friday. Not in this newspaper – we’ve taken some pains to frame the issue as merely one of differing perceptions about the practice/real swing.
We quoted the player on the morning after the match ended and he had no reluctance to talk about the play in question. If was had something to hide, you couldn’t tell it from his statements.
Have more incendiary things been said by others that we ultimately chose not to quote in the paper?
Yes. And I’m comfortable with that decision, too.
Some of this goes to the risk we all take when we step into the arena. We have published the player’s name – and surely will again, once the appeal is resolved – just as we would have if he’d hit the winning putt.
It’s material to the story to understand what’s being alleged. To explain both sides of the story isn’t a tacit endorsement of either – it’s just the job we do.
Another issue that has emerged from this story is that New Albany’s golf coach, Robert Garrett, hasn’t won any new friends in the Northeast Mississippi golfing community. Of course, that’s not his job – his job is to be the most effective advocate he can be for his team.
Pursuing the appeal on behalf of his players is part of that, from his perspective.
The end of Saturday’s South Pontotoc baseball loss to Sumrall should have signaled the end of the 2008-09 high school sports season for the schools in the Journal’s circulation area. But it’s been a weird year – remember Walnut’s football season hingeing on a court ruling against Leland back in November, and the recent confusion about rain delays during the baseball playoffs?
Meanwhile, the nice ladies in our classified advertising department would like to start selling one of those full-page ads hailing the Class 4A state championship team.
“What do you think we ought to do?” one of them asked me the other day.
I had to pause for a moment to think about that.
“I think we’ll just have to wait.”
John L. Pitts (john.pitts) is sports editor of the Daily Journal.

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