New Zealand’s Michael Long was hailed for his integrity after calling a penalty on himself in the closing stages of the 1997 Johnnie Walker Classic.
The 1997 Johnnie Walker Classic at Hope Island Resort on Queensland’s Gold Coast boasted a stellar cast with Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, John Daly, Ernie Els, Ian Woosnam and Fred Couples as headline acts.
Colin Montgomerie, Wayne Grady and Ian Baker-Finch were also in the field along with future Major champions Paul Lawrie, Vijay Singh, Michael Campbell, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke.
It was undoubtedly one of the best fields ever assembled for a tournament in the Southern Hemisphere. Yet it was a New Zealand journeyman who threatened to upset the established hegemony.
Michael Long, a 28-year-old from Cromwell in Central Otago, had played his way into contention and was paired with 1994 US Open champion Els for the final two rounds. Long was in good form, having captured the New Zealand Open just seven weeks earlier.
Long’s play at Hope Island was the type of performance he had promised to deliver followin
g an impressive amateur career when he netted four of New Zealand’s most celebrated titles.
Playing in the penultimate group on Sunday afternoon, Long was going shot for shot with Els at the top of the leaderboard. He trailed by one stroke upon reaching the 15th green, which he had hit in regulation and was 35 feet from the hole. Els had pitched on and faced a tricky eight-footer for par.
Long’s ball was sitting on a little kikuyu runner on the edge of the green. He had lined up the ball with his
handwritten dot on the top. But when he addressed the ball Long noticed the dot was no longer facing upwards.
He called over Els, who asked if he was certain the ball had moved from its original position. Long conceded it had. He replaced the ball with a one-stroke penalty. His 35-footer for par lipped out and he took a bogey 5. Els holed his par putt and the margin was two strokes.
Els birdied 16 to extend his lead to three. Long birdied the 17th to bring the margin back to two. Els bogeyed the last hole and Long’s unrealistic birdie putt from 40 feet slid underneath the cup.
last hole and Long’s unrealistic birdie putt from 40 feet slid underneath the cup.
Australian Peter Lonard holed a lengthy putt on the 18th to tie Long for second place. Couples, Faldo and Anthony Painter were another three strokes behind in a tie for fourth.
Hence, the penalty stroke Long called upon himself proved the difference. It’s little consolation that if the ball now moves on the green – and the player isn’t deemed to have moved it – there is no penalty.
Long is philosophical about the incident: “It was up to the player to decide whether they have addressed the ball or not … As far as I was concerned, I was ready to hit the ball and the ball moved.
“It was a little bit windy, a little bit wet and the ball moved. I don’t think I caused it to move. Again, it’s the rules.”
Fellow players were effusive in their praise. “Gentlemen play this game,” Els said afterwards. “In tennis, when you hit it close to the lines it’s in the hands of the linesmen or umpire. But in golf we take it on ourselves … He’s a great guy and he’ll have his day soon.”
Long was honoured later that year with a ‘Fair Play’ award from clothing manufacturer Pringle, which he accepted from Prince Andrew at a castle near Loch Lomond, Scotland. His sportsmanship was deemed more impressive than the selfless act of a sailor who stopped mid-race to try to rescue the stricken yacht of Tony Bullimore during the Vendee Globe around-the-world race.
“It was all very nice the attention it got for the game,” recalls Long. “What I did was what you should do in the game. It’s great that people can see that honesty and that we do play by the rules out there.”
The 1997 Johnnie Walker victory provided Els with the confidence and momentum to capture a second US Open title five months later. However, it would be two more years before Long would triumph, winning the rich Greg Norman Holden International at The Lakes in Sydney.
Then, in December 1999, Long sustained a broken neck from a boogie board accident near his home in Perth. He recovered from that career-threatening injury and played two full seasons on the US PGA Tour. Now aged 48 with seven career victories, Long has returned to playing fulltime on the PGA Tour of Australasia and is planning to enter qualifying school for the Champions Tour.
It’s now 20 years since his noble act of sportsmanship at the Johnnie Walker, which is all the more poignant given recent rules controversies involving Dustin Johnson and Lexi Thompson in Major championships.
It’s been said that sports do not build character. They reveal it. And that’s a reason why Michael Long should be remembered for his integrity on that Sunday afternoon on the Gold Coast.