Balicki: Howard’s end came with personal dignity

Barclay Howard

Editor's note: Ron Balicki, who died after an eight-month battle with cancer on Tuesday, won first place in the GWAA writing contest for columns in 1998. This column ran in Golfweek on Aug. 30, 1997 as part of the U.S. Amateur review coverage.

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LEMONT, Ill. – At one point in his life he couldn’t play a round of golf in his life unless he had at least a six-pack of beer in his bag.

At one point in his life he was stripped of his honorary membership in his home club after he, while intoxicated, insulted the daughter of a club official. He became an outcast from all competitive golf for a year.

At one point in his life, he lost his job as a laborer at Rolls Royce.

This resume of the past would hardly make one view Barclay Howard as a person of pride, dignity, honor and integrity.

But the 44-year-old Scotsman exudes all of the above. And last week at the U.S. Amateur Championship at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club, he not only proved it but made a statement for golf.

Howard, the 1997 Scottish Stroke Play champion who in July became the first Scot to win the silver medal as low amateur at the British Open since Charlie Green in 1962, was one of seven members of this year’s Great Britain-Ireland Walker Cup team who stayed here to compete in the Amateur.

It’s been a dream year for Howard, who said that while many realized he had a drinking problem dating to 1987, it took him until 1991 – June 1 to be exact – to realize it. To this day he regularly attends meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

And, while that dream ended on a sour note last week at Cog Hill, it will long live as an inspiration for what golf is all about.

Howard, who now works as service manager at John Letters, a golf equipment manufacturer in the United Kingdom, began his first U.S. Amateur with a 2-under 70 on Cog Hill’s No. 2 course. He followed with a 1-under 71 on the Dubsdread course for a 141 total, good enough to qualify him for the tournament’s 64-player match-play portion.

Or so he, and everyone else, thought. As it turned out, Howard was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.

It didn’t have to happen. In fact, if Howard never said anything, no one would have known. It could have been his little secret.

But that’s not what this proud Scotsman is all about, despite his checkered past. Howard knew he wasn’t bigger than the game. History and tradition, especially to a Scot, took priority over everything else, including the possibility of winning the U.S. Amateur.

On the 18th tee of his second round, Howard decided he wanted to change balls and told his caddie to give him a new one. Throughout the Amateur, he had been playing a Titleist Professional ball.

His caddie reaching into his bag, pulled out a ball and tossed it to him. Though the ball had Howard’s personal marking on it, it wasn’t the same model. This one was a Titleist Tour Balata, a ball he had used while competing in the Walker Cup two weeks prior – one that was inadvertently left in his bag when he decided to play the Professional model at the Amateur.

Once he teed off on 18, he unknowingly had broken the one-ball rule – a rule that doesn’t exist on the other side of the Atlantic, but one that Howard was well aware of in the U.S.

“We don’t have that kind of rule in Great Britain,” he noted. “Over there you can play a Heinz 57. You can change (ball types) on every hole if you so choose.”

Howard bogeyed the 18th hole. Had he taken his ball and dumped it in his bag, or even thrown it in the nearby lake out of frustration, he would have never known the difference.

But for some reason he put it in his pocket and then headed to the clubhouse for lunch. After eating he reached into his pocket and pulled out the ball.

“No, no,” he said as he looked at the ball and realized what he had done.

Had he noticed the ball when he pulled it out of the cup at 18, it would have been a two-shot penalty for violation of the one-ball rule. Instead, he had signed his card for a 5 without adding those two strokes. Even with the two strokes tacked on, his total still would have qualified him for match play.

Still, he was the only one who knew. The idea of keeping it his secret never entered his mind.

He quickly summoned U.S. Golf Association president Judy Bell and explained the situation.

“He came to us and told us what happened,” Bell said. “He said, ‘I have to disqualify myself.’ We went to verify his scorecard, to see if something could be done. But we couldn’t do anything. We had to disqualify him. We felt very sorry for him.”

So, too, did everyone else once word got out of the incident. Certainly, no one felt worse than Howard.

“Here I am, looking forward to match play and all of a sudden I’m out,” said Howard shortly thereafter. “At my age, you don’t know how many chances you’ll get. But you learn from your mistakes, and even at age 44, I’m still learning.”

He could have gotten away with it. If he had kept it his own secret, only Howard would have known. That, however, was enough.

“I would know,” he said. “Say I was walking up to win this on the weekend, how could I live with myself. Yes, I’ve had my share of problems, but after 44 years, you’re going to start cheating? No! I could never do that.”

As disappointed as he was to be disqualified, it was more important for him to play by the rules.

Once, he was a drunkard. Once, he was a disgrace to his club. But never did he think he was above the game. At this year’s U.S. Amateur, Howard showed what golf is all about – honor and integrity.

Howard didn’t make it to match play. Yet in the overall scope of things, he just might have been the biggest winner of all last week at Cog Hill.

• • •

More on Ron Balicki's career

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