John Huggan: Questions grow over Woods’ ethics

There have been many mishaps recently, but is Tiger Woods 'back'? Picture: AP
There have been many mishaps recently, but is Tiger Woods 'back'? Picture: AP
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IT HAS forever been one of golf’s hoarier and, whisper-it, more pretentious lines. Play, say, nine holes with any stranger and, hey presto, depth of character and inherent personality are laid bare for all to see.

But there’s more to it than that. Closer inspection is required if the integrity or otherwise of an individual is to be fully revealed. How that person interacts with the admittedly esoteric rules of the game is the true indicator of just how strictly he or she adheres to the strict ethical and moral code required of every golfer.

Which brings us, inexorably and inevitably, to Tiger Woods.

Amid the endlessly tedious arguments over whether or not the world No.1 is “back,” or whether his five-victory but no-major 2013 season should be constituted “great” or merely “good,” there has been a series of increasingly disturbing encounters with rules officials. Four of them, to be exact.

The first, in Abu Dhabi last January was understandable enough, the sort of thing that can and has happened to every golfer. Faced with a seemingly straightforward situation (a free drop from an embedded lie) that turned out to be anything but (his ball was embedded in sand from which there was no relief), Woods made an innocent mistake. It was also expensive. The resulting two-shot penalty saw him miss the 36-hole cut by a stroke.

Woods’ second mishap came, infamously, at the Masters. Again, his ignorance of the rules was the problem. After suffering some outrageously bad luck when his pitch to the par-5 15th rebounded off the pin and into Rae’s Creek, the 14-times major champion dropped another ball in the wrong place. Erroneously thinking he could play from anywhere along a line extending from pin through original position and beyond, he dropped a few yards further away from the hole.

All of the above should have resulted in a routine two-shot penalty, as long as the oversight came to light before the scorecard was signed. Which it did, even if the green-jackets chose not to inform Woods. The upshot was that the wrong score was entered and attested, a scenario that would normally lead to instant disqualification. Not this time, though. Exonerated from blame by the admitted incompetence of the officials, Woods played on, even as widespread calls were made for him to do the “right thing” and pull out voluntarily.

So far, so “sort-of good.” While it was clear that the game’s most scrutinised player had missed a gilt-edged opportunity to polish his much-tarnished image, he had, technically at least, done nothing more than follow instructions.

So, while it was becoming increasingly obvious that he and his caddie, Joe La Cava, would be well advised to take a basic rules test, Woods’ conscience was clean enough going forward. Certainly, no one was using his name alongside the dreaded C-word (cheat).

A month later, however, golf’s most high-profile player entered a seriously grey area during the Players Championship which he would eventually win. On the 14th hole in the final round, Woods pull-hooked his tee-shot into the lateral water hazard running up the left side. That was bad enough but what followed was open to many interpretations, few of them good.

The problem was the location of the spot where Woods chose to drop. Many witnesses, including television commentators, felt he put his second ball in play a lot closer to the hole than he was entitled to (the point where his initial shot last crossed the line of the hazard). Crucially, however, his playing partner, Casey Wittenberg, was not one of those people. So Woods was able to escape without penalty, leaving the more cynical to question just how much attention Wittenberg had actually paid to the trajectory and direction of his companion’s drive. Let’s just say, if the young American is typical, he probably didn’t even watch Woods’ wayward effort.

Anyway, the resulting furore moved the Woods debate from lack of rules knowledge and onto his disquieting inclination to take full and morally questionable advantage of any situation – never mind the consequences.For perhaps the first time, the level of his on-course behaviour – other than his propensity for cursing and expectorating – was brought into question.

Last week, that particular chorus grew in volume after the two-shot penalty handed to Woods at the BMW Championship in Chicago. When it became clear to the ever-watching world – courtesy of video evidence – that his moving of a twig behind the first green (main picture) had caused his ball to shift slightly, Woods declared himself unconvinced of any guilt in the matter. Given the clarity of the evidence, his was an extraordinary stance, one designed to win no friends – amongst the clear-sighted at least.

This was not, of course, the first time a player has disputed a call made by an experienced official. Back in 2002, the European Tour’s Chief Referee, John Paramor, approached Colin Montgomerie during the final round of the Volvo Masters at Valderrama. Again, video evidence strongly suggested that the Scot’s ball had moved as he addressed a putt on the 10th green. But Monty, during a lengthy and loud hissy-fit witnessed and heard by many (including this reporter) standing outside the scorer’s hut behind the 18th green, was having none of it. And, eventually, the powers-that-be backed down.

This time, Woods failed to dodge the two-shot bullet, a fact that made him distinctly unhappy. But there was more. His bigger issue seemed to be that he, as the game’s most-watched player, is most vulnerable to “trial by video.” Which is true. But what he failed to mention was the benefit he gains from the crowds typically lining his fairways. Many times his ball bounces back into play off an unwitting patron. And the mind recalls a far-off Phoenix Open when a swarm of obedient spectators helped him move a huge boulder – technically a “loose impediment” – so that he could make an unencumbered swing.

Woods’ claims also betray a flawed logic. If, as he maintains, he is being held to a higher standard than any other, one must conclude he feels his fellow competitors are not playing strictly by the rules. If that is indeed the case, why does he want to behave in that same dishonest way? Is he really happy to play a game that is less than pure?

Woods’ attitude is therefore perplexing and not a little disappointing. Golf history is littered with instances of players calling penalties on themselves even when real doubt lingered over their guilt or innocence. Better to play safe and take any punishment than endure a lifetime of whispers regarding one’s ability to represent golf in the best possible light.

This time, even with little or no “wiggle room,” Woods chose a different – some might say more arrogant – route, one that will surely damage his reputation with the public and, more importantly, his fellow professionals.

Not that we are likely to hear much, even anonymously, on the subject from any tour player. For them, there is no future in publicly criticising such a powerful figure.

Besides, every professional appreciates only too well how much Woods has done to boost their bank balances.

In this case at least, silence really is golden.