Instead of being disqualified from the 77th Masters over an incorrect drop in his second round, Tiger Woods got away with a two-shot penalty. The Augusta air was thick with a feeling that this was a day of shame for golf.
It stemmed from Woods’ third shot to the 15th hole on Friday. It hit halfway up the pin and spun back into the water guarding the front of the green. He had three options for his next blow: play it from a designated drop area, play from in line with where the ball last crossed the water hazard or play from the original spot of his third shot.
He chose the latter and limited the damage to a bogey-6. Even before he’d left the green, however, eagle-eyed TV viewers lit up the switchboard of the host broadcaster. They reckoned Woods hadn’t, in fact, played his shot from the same spot. As Woods completed his round, the incident was reviewed by the Masters rules committee but, at that point, it deemed there had been no rules violation.
Chairman Fred Ridley, pictured right, later admitted that had been a mistake. It was the start of a damaging chain of events. After signing for a 71 to sit three shots behind the halfway leader, Australian Jason Day, it was Woods himself who revealed he’d infringed the self-policing laws of the game. Recalling his actions at the 15th, the world No.1 said: “I went down to the drop area, that wasn’t going to be a good spot, because obviously it’s into the grain, it’s really grainy there. And it was a little bit wet. So it was muddy and not a good spot to drop.
“So I went back to where I played it from, but I went two yards further back and I took, tried to take, two yards off the shot of what I felt I hit. And that should land me short of the flag and not have it either hit the flag or skip over the back. I felt that that was going to be the right decision to take off four right there. And I did. It worked out perfectly.”
Perfectly for him in terms of his score, maybe, but not under the Rules of Golf. In short, he hadn’t hit his fifth shot from the original spot, violating Rule 26-1. A second review was swiftly called by the men in green jackets. It included an early-morning meeting with Woods yesterday. Despite some initial confusion, the penalty was for taking an “improper drop” but he was spared from disqualification through a new rule – 37.1 – brought in to stop that action being taken as a result of television evidence spotted by viewers.
It left him free to continue his quest for a fifth green jacket and first major success in nearly five years. A posse of TV analysts, including Nick Faldo, called for Woods to fall on his sword. “He knows what has gone on,” said the three-time Masters champion. “He took advantage and he knows he took advantage and he knows you are not allowed to.”
Former world No.1 Greg Norman wrote on Twitter: “It is all about the player and the integrity of the game. Woods violated the rules. No.1 carries a greater burden. WD for the game.”
It was unclear what Norman meant by “WD” but it was speculated last night that he was urging Woods to “withdraw” for the good of the game.
Butch Harmon, Woods’ former coach, also felt a disqualification should have been in order but, sharing the same Sky commentary box, Colin Montgomerie disagreed. “You don’t consciously take an advantage on a golf course, none of us do,” insisted the Scot.
In Woods’ case, it was the second time in three months he’d infringed the rules, having also taken an illegal drop from an ice plant in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship in January and missed the cut there as a result of a similar two-shot penalty.
“At hole #15, I took a drop that I thought was correct and in accordance with the rules,” Woods said on Twitter before being cheered on to the first tee for his third round, which he started with a birdie. “I was unaware at that time I had violated any rules. I didn’t know I had taken an incorrect drop prior to signing my scorecard.
“Subsequently, I met with the Masters Committee Saturday morning and was advised they had reviewed the incident prior to the completion of my round. Their initial determination was that there was no violation, but they had additional concerns based on my post-round interview. After discussing the situation with them this morning, I was assessed a two-shot penalty. I understand and accept the penalty and respect the Committee’s decision.”
According to Ridley, the possibility of Woods being disqualified had “not even been on the table” as the chance to take action before he’d signed his card had been missed and, therefore, he deserved the “protection” the new rule provides.
“Tiger has he said that he fully intended to comply with the rule and play from the spot that he played his prior shot. I didn’t see anything and he didn’t tell me anything that would lead me to believe that he knowingly violated the rule,” he said.
“Based on his very forthright and honest answers to the questions that I had, I told Tiger that, in light of that information, we felt that he had, in fact, violated Rule 26 under the Rules of Golf and that he was going to have to be penalised.
“There’s no question that Tiger should be penalised – that’s not the issue. The issue is what should we do in imposing that penalty. We advised the governing bodies and professional Tours of that decision and the reasons for it and they have welcomed our decision. I hope it sets good precedent because I think it is a good decision.”
Asked if there was concern about Woods receiving special treatment, Ridley added: “I can’t really control what the perception might or might not be. All I can say is that unequivocally this tournament is about integrity. Our founder Bobby Jones was about integrity, and if this had been John Smith from wherever, that he would have gotten the same ruling. It is the right ruling under these circumstances.”