What happened in the junk off the 18th green at the Harbour Town Golf Links could have all been avoided if Brian Davis had only taken the easy way out.

That, however, was never really an option. Davis was going to play the shot out of the hazard instead of taking a penalty drop because it was probably the only chance he had to finally win a golf tournament.

And for that, golf can be grateful.

If this was some kind of fairy tale story, Davis would have won the tournament he so desperately wanted to win. It's not, and Jim Furyk's name is on both the winner's trophy and the $1.026 million check.

Don't expect Davis to be happy about that. He's tried too long and too hard to win a PGA tournament, and this one was almost in his hands.

"You're not playing for second, but playing to win," Davis said. "But I can hold my head up high."

Indeed he can. And, in the end, that may be more important than the win that got away.

Because after months of being mired in the slime of Tiger Woods, golf needed Brian Davis worse than Davis needed to win his first tournament on the PGA Tour.

"It's not exactly what I was thinking about," Davis said. "But anything good for our sport is good, I guess."

In case you missed it — and the anemic television ratings would indicate all but the most die-hard golf fans did — Davis was in the hazard next to the final green with a wedge in his hand, needing to somehow get up-and-down in two to keep his overtime playoff against Furyk going.

After much deliberation with his caddie, he splashed out from a crummy lie to about 30 feet, giving him a chance to make it to stay alive. But something felt wrong, and he immediately called over a PGA official to tell him why.

"I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye," Davis said Monday in a telephone interview. "I didn't feel anything, but I thought I might have seen something."

What Davis saw was his club almost imperceptibly grazing a reed in the hazard. Under rule 13.4 — moving a loose impediment during a takeaway — that meant a 2-stroke penalty, even if the offense was only visible in super slow motion replays.

And that meant the golf tournament for Davis.

For six years the Englishman turned Florida resident has been trying to win one on this side of the pond. He could have pretended he never saw the club graze the reed, and taken the chance no one else saw it either.

But he didn't. He's a golfer.

And golfers don't cheat. Not on the course, at least.

"That's what makes our sport so special," Davis said. "It was just one of those things. I had to call it and I did."

The golf community understood. They patted Davis on the back, and two prominent players on the senior tour called and thanked him for restoring some sense of integrity to the game.

But what shocked Davis more was the reaction from people who don't know the difference between a putter and a 6-iron.

The e-mails and phone calls flooded in Monday from around the country. Teachers even had their students write.

"It was mostly 'I just wanted to send you a note to say we need more people like you in sports,'" Davis said. "People saw it as an example to the younger generation to make the right choices."

In this case the right choice was the only choice for Davis. He may not play golf like Woods but, unlike Woods, he plays a gentleman's game like a gentleman.

And instead of capitalizing on his newfound fame to sell shoes, he's using it to sell awareness. Davis, who has had three bouts of skin cancer, is a spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation.

"If you see the damage it's done to someone, it wakes people up," Davis said. "Coming from England we didn't worry much about it because we seldom saw the sun, and by the time I became aware of it, it had already done a lot of damage."

Davis hopes to get people slathering on the sunscreen like he does twice a day. He hopes even more fervently to win on the PGA Tour some day, and believes his time will come.

It almost did Sunday in South Carolina, where he had to make an 18-footer on the final hole just to get in the playoff. He's sure he would have made that last 30-footer, too, had it meant anything.

Instead, he halfheartedly hit it by the hole, knowing his big chance was gone. It was a bitter disappointment, but Davis was buoyed by the response to what he did.

"For me now it's nothing but positive looking forward," Davis said. "It's going to be a good year for me."

It could be a good year for golf, too.

And for that, some thanks should go to an Englishman who acted like a gentleman.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org