Kate Wynja was in position to make a lot of people happy this past June. She ready to defend her individual title in the South Dakota Class A Golf Championship, and her team, Sioux Falls Christian, was among the favorites for the team honors. On top of that, her coach, Don Gaarnas, was coaching his final tournament. As a senior, she was poised to not only repeat as state medalist but to send herself and her entire golf family out in style.
She appeared to have accomplished all those goals with a four-stroke victory over her closest competitor. “When she came off that last green, she dropped her club and gave me a hug,” Gaarnas said. “We were both crying. The team was crying.” But after signing and turning in her scorecard and seeing her name atop the leaderboard, Kate felt uneasy. She double-checked the card she kept for herself as a backup.
“When I compared the two, they didn’t add up. I knew I made the mistake on the official card,” she said. Kate had entered a 4 for her score on the 18th on the official card. She had entered a 5 − her actual score − on the card she kept for herself. No one else had noticed the error: neither Gaarnas nor the spotter nor the tournament director who accompanied Kate on the final holes. Keeping quiet would have been so easy and would have kept so many people so happy.
But it wasn’t honest or right. So, Kate went straight to Gaarnas, who was in the middle of hugs and handshakes from competitors and well-wishers. Kate tapped him on the shoulder and told him what happened. They went straight to the officials to report signing an incorrect scorecard. Even though she had won by multiple strokes, rules dictated that she be disqualified. Without her score, Sioux Falls Christian fell to second.
Because the error was hers, Kate insisted on breaking the news to her teammates. “That was the hardest part,” she said. But instead of hurt feelings or the silent treatment on the ride home, “They weren’t upset at all. They were glad that I did the right thing.” From there, news spread through the golf world. When Jack Nicklaus found out about Wynja’s act of integrity, he commended her on Twitter: “I love the uniquely special characteristics of the game of golf, even when it is sometimes tough love. Congrats to this young lady for using golf as a vehicle to teach us all life lessons on honesty and integrity.” The two met in September, when Nicklaus played in a portion of the Champions Tour event in Sioux Falls. The two shared a hug. He again congratulated her and wished her luck. “You’ll do well,” Jack said. “With an attitude like you have, you’re going to do well.”
More important to her, though, was the outpouring of messages she received from parents nationwide. “That was one of the biggest things for me, that people outside of golf see this as important to share with their kids,” she said. “It’s surprising that it’s gotten this big and important. But it is a big deal for people to know that when faced with a decision about success or honesty, this is the right choice.”
Now a freshman at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, Kate has started a new season with new teammates that also praised her sportsmanship. “They messaged me right away in support, and my coaches said they were so proud of me,” Kate said. “This team focuses on honesty and integrity, too. It’s awesome to represent that. Being the best is so important to so many people in this world, but it’s more important to keep in mind the bigger things, like honesty and telling the truth.”