American golf in its early days was played almost exclusively by people born with silver spoons in their mouths. Golf was considered a gentlemans game, rigidly governed by The Rules of the Game, a set of rules so comprehensive, so specific, and so detailed that it was considered as holy to golfers as the Ten Commandments are to devout Christians. Today golf is played by more people than ever before. It is no longer the exclusive pastime of the country-club set. Millions of golfers enjoy the game. Millions more dont. And among those who dont, a primary reason given is that an overwhelming majority of people who play golf cheat at golf. That is no surprise to me. I have seen a lot of cheating. I have been the victim of cheating. What is a surprise to me is that a recent study of more than 400 business executives reveals that many people who cheat at golf also cheat in business. Those who move the ball for a better lie or conveniently forget to count a couple of strokes are also likely to fake reports, juggle accounts, and lie about their business actions. Asked if they cheated at golf, 55% admitted they did. More than one-third of the admitted cheaters said they also lied in their business practices. To me, this raises a broader issue: the publics concern about business credibility. I see this concern as only part of a much bigger one: the issue of todays morality and value standards. At virtually all levels of society -- from the dirty gutters of our city slum areas to the monumental beauty of our nations Capitol -- doubt about business credibility is part of a total societal malaise that I find distressing. It causes me to question the future strength of an American system in which the countrys chief executive admits that he cheats at golf and has cheated on his wife, where business executives admit they cheat at golf and in their business practices. Daniel Yankelovitch, the research professional, was recently quoted as saying, "Business is being criticized and called a bum today for doing the same things that made it a hero just a few years ago. Business hasnt changed; society has changed. The period from the end of World War II was a time when what people wanted and what business provided were perfectly synchronized. What has happened since then is that the values of the country have shifted. . . . A decade or two ago, the publics expectations about business were so high that openness would have inevitably led to disappointment. The hero would sometimes have clay feet, and the people would be surprised by actual performance as against what they thought was happening. Now weve gone to the opposite extreme. People are so cynical, so paranoid, so mistrustful that openness has to help rather than hurt." In my opinion, a society cannot function well without public confidence in its institutions and its leaders. Our business corporations and their chief executives are critical elements in a healthy and stable social order. The business community has every reason to be concerned about the American publics lack of confidence in it. The challenge now facing Americas business executives, as I see it, is not to explain themselves better, but to demonstrate that they take the publics concerns and criticisms seriously. Maybe its time for Americans to elect Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus President -- someone who understands not only the rules of the game but the importance of playing by them whether he or she is being watched or not. Professional golfers are the only professionals I know who call penalties on themselves for violating the rules of the game. Frankly, Id like to see that kind of honesty in our nations leaders and in its business leaders, as well. We need leaders who not only hit the ball straight, but who think straight and talk straight, too. President Palmer has an alliterative (and comforting) ring to it. Dont you agree? Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].