The Gimme: an Ultimate Show of Sportsmanship or a Coldhearted Head Game?

November 15, 2015

There’s nothing like the gimme. In a sport that fetishizes rules, the gimme is governed entirely by tradition and an unwritten code of honor. That it remains part of recreational play is a godsend to those of us who are prone to missing our three-footers, but how weird is it that the gimme still exists at the game’s highest levels? There’s nothing like it in the rest of the sporting world, where player discretion regulates play. The gimme transcends different continents, cultures and competitive makeups. It’s the ultimate gray area in a sport that seeks to be black and white. The surprise is not that the recent Solheim Cup was marred by a dispute over a gimme on a one-and-a-half-foot putt, but rather that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often.

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As Brad Faxon once explained to me, “Match play without gimmes would be a totally different game, and not nearly as interesting.” A veteran of the 1995 and 1997 Ryder Cups, Faxon went on. “I love the mental stress that gimmes impose on both teams. You have to decide if a putt is missable but balance that against what your opponent might think of you if you don’t give it. Should you be a hard-ass or go with spirit of the game? If you don’t give the putt, that raises the possibility of the retaliation non-gimme, where a guy didn’t give you a short putt so you don’t give him one on the next hole. Or, do you give a lot of putts early so your opponent thinks you’re a good guy but then give nothing late, just to mess with him? There are infinite scenarios. And that’s what makes match play special—it’s all about getting inside a guy’s head.”

The most famous act of sportsmanship in golf history was the gimme Jack Nicklaus proffered at the 1969 Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale, sparing Tony Jacklin a knee-knocking three-footer and leaving the competition locked in a tie. (“We went over there to win, not to be good ol’ boys,” miffed team captain Sam Snead later said of Jack’s charity.) Other gimmes and non-gimmes linger because of their piquancy. One of the few memorable moments in Presidents Cup history came in 2000, when Vijay Singh stood sizzling over a 16-inch putt, staring at a defiant Tiger Woods and waiting for a gimme that never came. Twelve years later at the Ryder Cup, Tiger was in the 18th fairway, 1-up on Francesco Molinari. On the green ahead, Martin Kaymer sunk a putt that guaranteed Europe could do no worse than a tie, thus retaining Samuel Ryder’s trophy, but the outcome of the 2012 Cup remained in doubt. If Woods held on, the U.S. would tie. Instead, he cavalierly gave Molinari a four-footer, halving the match and handing Europe the victory, 14.5-13.5. Woods maintained that since Europe was going to keep the trophy, the overall score didn’t matter, hardly a universal view. “I thought about giving him [the match] in the fairway,” Molinari said. “But then the captain [Jose Maria Olazabal] was there and he told me it’s not the same, winning or halving…I wasn’t expecting him to give it to me.”

For his part, Faxon told me that at the two Cups he played in, “We absolutely had scouting reports. It was like batter against pitcher. I remember all the locker-room conversations, about whose stroke was getting quick under pressure, who was leaving uphillers short or who was pulling left-to-righters.”

The Solheim Cup can feature similar intensity. But Christina Kim, a veteran of three U.S. teams, told me that gamesmanship doesn’t have to be inherent to the gimme culture. “I give a lot of putts, and I like to be very vocal in doing so because I hate mind games myself,” she explained to me. “I’m there to play golf. I want you to play your best. I just want my best to be better than your best. Kill them with kindness, ya know?”