It began with a phone call I wasn't prepared for.
Since the release of my book, Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion, I'd heard from talk-radio shows around the country, and even made an appearance on ESPNews. But now I had Michael Bamberger on the phone.
Yeah, that Michael Bamberger.
Of course I'd described the episode in my book; it was Wie's first tournament as a professional, and she'd been disqualified.
And of course I'd discussed Bamberger's role in the incident - without him she would've collected her fourth-place prize and proceeded on with her life, $53,126 richer and blissfully unaware that she'd made an illegal drop on the ninth hole during the third round.
Now Bamberger is on the phone, and he didn't sound happy.
I was drawing a blank - what did I actually write about him? I leaf through a copy of the book and find the following excerpt (slightly abridged here):
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Interestingly, Michelle wasn't the only person under fire. Many people took issue with the man who blew the whistle, the Sports Illustrated reporter who originally thought Michelle had made a bad drop, ultimately blaming him for getting her disqualified.
It wasn't just Michelle's fans who were mad at Bamberger. Leonard Shapiro, a sports columnist for The Washington Post, wrote an article called "Rulings Are for Officials, Not Reporters," saying, "Back in Journalism 101, among the first principles ever driven into our young and fertile minds was the concept that reporters should never become part of the story. We're there to report and write about what we witnessed, but not inject ourselves into the action or contribute to altering the basic facts of what we've just seen or heard.
"But affecting the outcome of a golf tournament because you believe a rules violation has taken place goes way above and beyond the role of the sports press…. As a journalist, he had no right, no matter what sort of moral high ground he has been taking in all the interviews I've seen him give since the DQ, to insinuate himself into the story. He was out of line. Period and end of story."
Sports Illustrated defended Bamberger's actions. Senior writer Alan Shipnuck wrote SI's response to the incident, saying, "Bamberger had a sleepless night on Saturday knowing that if he reported Wie, and if it was determined that she had broken a rule, she would be disqualified. It would be unprecedented for a reporter to affect the outcome of a tournament in such a manner, but Bamberger felt compelled to pursue the matter. ‘Adherence to the rules is the underlying value of the game,' Bamberger says. ‘To stand in silence when you see an infraction is an infraction itself.'"
Shipnuck went on to point out, "Every week the PGA Tour receives multiple phone calls from TV viewers who think they have spotted infractions. To some, spectators who report violations are busybodies. In fact, third parties - even reporters - who point out rules infractions are protecting the field and preserving the integrity of the competition."
But even Bamberger seemed uncertain about his actions. He was fully aware that as a journalist who had changed the outcome of the event he was reporting on, he was on shaky ground.
In an interview with fellow SI writers, he said, "In hindsight, if I could do anything over again, I would try to intercept her between the 18th green and her signing the scorecard. I wish I would have done that." If he had, Michelle would have been assessed a simple two-stroke penalty rather than disqualification.
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Fair enough? I laid out the events, presented the argument against Bamberger's actions, presented the official explanation given by a fellow Sports Illustrated writer, and even threw in a quote from Bamberger himself.
Well, no. Bamberger wasn't irritated with what I had included, he was bothered by what I hadn't - an explanation of how much of an advantage Michelle had gained with her improper drop.
Here's what happened: From where Michelle dropped her ball, she had a relatively unimpeded shot to the green. She made the shot and ended up with a par. Had she made a proper drop - 12 to 15 inches further back, according to the rules officials, an estimate Bamberger calls conservative - she would have had a yucca plant squarely in her backswing. Because she took the bush out of play, she ended up giving herself an advantage she shouldn't have had.
This bush, Bamberger says, is the crux of the story, and no one seems to even know about it.
"Your portrayal of the incident is one paragraph, actually one sentence away from being fine. If you had mentioned the bush, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Bamberger tells me.
It hasn't been easy to be the guy who got Michelle Wie disqualified. His name has become synonymous with whistle-blowing; golfers everywhere wonder if they'll get "Bambergered." They joke as they take a drop: "Should I call for a rules official, or is there a Michael Bamberger in the house?"
The 10-year SI veteran was raked over the coals not just by irate Wie fans but also by fellow journalists. Washington Post editor George Solomon called Bamberger a "vigilante sports journalist." Jon Carroll of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "The first responsibility of a sports reporter is not to the game he is covering; it is to the readers who trust that he will never attempt to affect the outcome of that game."
"After reading Len [Shapiro]'s piece," Bamberger says, "I realized that his idea of what it means to be a reporter and mine are different."
So why wait a day to report what he knew to be an illegal drop?
"In my mind I didn't ‘wait a day' to go to an official, although I can see why others think that. I was there to report on Michelle Wie's first tournament as a professional. I saw her take what looked like a bad drop; the correct drop, the way I saw it, would have had her swing impeded by a bush. My job is not to help a golfer I'm covering turn in a correct scorecard. My job is to report on what the golfer does."
But why not catch her before the scorecard was a done deal? Didn't the delay just maximize the damage?
"Maybe I could have tried to intercept her before she signed her card," he says. "But that's way outside the norm - a fantasy, really."
Not sure what to do, Bamberger contacted his editor, Jim Herre, who recommended that the reporter go to the rules officials and let them sort it out.
"We knew we were going to write the story, so at that point it was pretty simple," Herre says. "We couldn't wait a week and then play gotcha after the fact. That just casts aspersions on Michelle's character. So we let the officials decide. They might have said, 'It's nothing, don't worry about it.' It was their call."
This was no small decision on Herre's part. He knew he would end up having to explain himself for months to come - to Sports Illustrated higher-ups, to other journalists, to readers and to fans.
"We got a lot of criticism, but it became agenda driven," he says. "Our competitors were hard on us, others were more thoughtful. It depended on where you were in the golf-journalism universe."
It was a unique situation. As Herre says now, "Only in golf would this happen. But what Michael says I trust. He's the one guy who actually knows the rules, and when he sees something he knows what he's talking about."
If Bamberger had to do it over again, not much would change. He stands by his actions, and he's still catching flak for it, almost a year later.
"The whole thing gives me a headache," he says. "The subject wears me out. But I did it because rules are sacred. If the rules aren't followed, the whole game falls apart."
August 28, 2006
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