My fifteen-year-old son, Nathan, has taken up golf recently. This seems like a relatively healthy balance as a spring sport to complement basketball, which is his primary sport. I also know that it is a great skill to have in the business world, as most rounds of golf involve four or five hours of talking, and 20 minutes of actually hitting the ball. Many deals have been done and relationships forged on the golf course. Unfortunately, every sports headline since he took up golf has been about Tiger Woods. And then, last Sunday, things changed.
Brian Davis is not a household name. He is an outstanding golfer, which is why he plays on the PGA tour. But it would be hard to say that he has been burning it up this year out on the links. Until last week, Davis had played in nine tournaments and finished in the top 40 only once, missing four cuts. The Englishman has never won a PGA event.
On Sunday he made an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole of the Verizon Heritage Classic to force a playoff with Jim Furyk, a veteran with 14 tour victories. On the first playoff hole, Davis’s approach shot hit the green and then caromed into a hazard. In hitting out of the hazard, he thought he saw a reed move in his backswing, a violation of the “loose impediment” rule that results in a two-stroke penalty. He was not certain, however, and called an official over to review the situation. Slow motion replays indicated movement, and the tournament was over.
I have already seen cynical blog posts saying that he had to call it on himself because there were cameras all around. I have also seen comments that the rule is stupid, and they got the rule wrong, and he won $615,000 anyway. But a golfer who respects the game makes that decision to self-report in the moment, without consulting with anybody else, and with almost no time to calculate the consequences. Unfortunately, hindsight provides steroid-level growth for cynicism.
What the world observed on Sunday was the beauty of self-regulation, something largely forgotten in business today. The accounting profession was “self-regulated” for most of my career. The SEC was there to punish egregious behavior, but for the most part CPAs punished each other and tried to root out those who were involved in unethical behavior. There were periodic scandals that led to calls for reform. But CPAs generally were seen as a restraining force reining in the worst impulses of the marketplace.
This is no longer the case. Too often, CPAs have colluded with clients or at least been fraud enablers. At the center of almost every financial scandal is the CFO, almost always a CPAâ€”Andy Fastow of Enron, Mark Swartz of Tyco International, and Scott Sullivan of WorldCom, to name a few. They were the best and the brightest, and they did their very best to bring the profession crashing down.
But they were not real CPAs. They could not have cared less about the public interest, or people’s pension plans, or the hopes and dreams that parents had for their children. They only cared about themselves. And, as I have written elsewhere, we would have been better off without them. Because they could not control themselves, because they were not self-regulated, Congress gave the accounting profession the gift of full outside regulation in the form of Sarbanes-Oxley and the PCAOB.
What we saw in Brian Davis Sunday were the habits and the conscience of a self-regulated man. It was not an accident that he did what he did, and I am confident it was not the first time he had ever told the truth when it was difficult, and expensive, to do so. Brian Davis is a real golfer.
Not everyone is a real golfer, as my son has discovered in his first year playing tournaments. He has been a witness to rampant cheating, tournament after tournament. We are raising up new Andy Fastows on today’s high school golf courses. Kill the conscience, and you kill the habits that go with it.
And not everyone is a real CPA. Some people would rather get rich than tell the truth. There is evidence that this is true on the PGA tour, and I know that it is true in my profession. We used to be a self-regulated profession. But, then, we used to deserve it.
Categories: Bottom Line Ethics