On one side is the camp that believes he got exactly what he deserved. On the other come incensed demands he should be gone.
Somewhere in the gray area in between, Tiger Woods is still fighting for a green jacket.
In a colossal accumulation of failures by all parties to properly apply the rules of golf regarding Woods’ drop on the 15th hole Friday, the Masters rules committee came up with a hybrid solution that retroactively assessed Woods a two-shot penalty yet kept him in the tournament despite signing an incorrect scorecard.
It is far from a Solomonic compromise and has sparked outrage and debate around the world a day after the tournament docked a 14-year-old amateur a stroke for playing too slowly. Shrieks of favoritism will abound and never go away if Woods rallies from four strokes behind and wins his 15th major.
Undeterred, Woods shot 70 to tie for seventh heading into today’s final round.
“Under the rules of golf I can play,” Woods said. “I was able to go out there and compete and play. Evidently this is the (Padraig) Harrington rule, I guess. If it was done a year or two ago, whatever, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play. But the rules have changed, and under the rules of golf I was able to play.”
These are USGA executive director Mike Davis’ words after the discretionary clause was added by golf’s governing bodies two years ago at Augusta National after high-profile phoned-in violations cost Harrington in Abu Dhabi and Camilo Villegas in Kapalua.
“There had to be facts arise after the scorecard had been returned, that the player either couldn’t possibly have known about, or, in the committee’s judgment, couldn’t have reasonably known before he returned the scorecard,” Davis said. “That’s the key here. We are dealing with fact-based issues. It’s not issues dealing with not knowing the rules.”
Davis said Harrington would have been cleared for requiring slow-motion, high-definition replays to detect if his ball fluttered in the wind while Villegas would still have been disqualified for not knowing the rules about sweeping away divots from the area his ball was in the process of rolling to.
“Ignorance of the rules will not in this particular case get a player off disqualification, if he breaches a rule, doesn’t include the penalty, and then returns a scorecard,” Davis said.
This should have nothing to do with how much the rules committee screwed up by initially clearing Woods without asking for his input or whether or not he intended to gain a competitive advantage or if it’s even fair that such a bad break is worthy of such a harsh penalty.
The point is, Woods’ words Friday made it clear that he didn’t fully understand the rules that applied to his drop and that’s indictment enough. Ignorance of the rules is NOT an excuse and doesn’t warrant the “Harrington” exemption.
Based on Woods’ comments about dropping the ball 2 yards further away for strategic reasons, he clearly wasn’t trying to drop the ball “as near as possible” to the previous spot. This is what prompted rules officials’ second inquiry after initially deeming the rule proper based only on video evidence.
For clarity’s sake, let’s walk through this again.
Woods caught a wicked break when his wedge to the 15th green hit near the bottom of the pin and caromed into the pond.
He dropped behind his original spot, hit his next shot to 3 feet and walked away with bogey.
The Rules of Golf gave Woods three options for his drop: the designated drop zone, on the line keeping the point where the ball entered the water between his drop point and the pin, or “near as possible” to his original spot.
Woods dismissed the drop area, and he said after the round that he couldn’t see what happened because of the setting sun in his eyes.
“Well, 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,” he said. “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.”
Perhaps not as perfectly as he thought. His probably birdie went from a six to and eight. His potential 36-hole lead went to T7 and then T19.
“You know, I wasn’t even really thinking,” Woods said Saturday. “I was still a little ticked at what happened, and I was just trying to figure, OK, I need to take some yardage off this shot, and that’s all I was thinking about was trying to make sure I took some yardage off of it. Evidently, it was pretty obvious, I didn’t drop in the right spot.”
Woods is not the first player, of course, to get a favorable ruling that seems counter to the written rules at the Masters. Arnold Palmer famously objected to his initial ruling regarding an embedded ball on the 12th hole in 1958. He appealed and played a second ball, improving his score from double bogey to par. Augusta National officials a few holes later confirmed he could keep the par and he wound up winning his first green jacket by a stroke.
Ken Venturi, Palmer’s playing partner that day who finished tied for fourth two shots back, still vehemently contends that Palmer broke the rules by playing his two balls consecutively instead of concurrently, as the rules stipulated.
But this year’s Woods ruling has an even greater precedence established in 1960 regarding Dow Finsterwald, who on Saturday served as a Masters rules official on the 10th hole.
In the first round of the 1960 Masters, Finsterwald took a practice putt on the fifth green after finishing the hole. The rules of golf at the time did not ban the practice, but the Masters followed the PGA’s rules that prohibited it in tournament play.
The next day, Finsterwald started to take another practice putt on the first hole when playing partner Billy Casper yelled for him to stop. Casper explained the local rule and showed him the written information printed on the scoreboards.
Finsterwald immediately informed rules officials of his violation a day earlier, and they told him to play on and they’d take it up with the rules committee. After his round, tournament officials decided to retroactively assess him a two-shot penalty on the previous round, turning his 69 into a 71. But he was not disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard, citing that his violation did not affect his play on that hole and “the circumstances were unusual enough” to waive the rules.
Finsterwald, incidentally, reminded Masters competition committee chairman Fred Ridley of that ruling Saturday morning.
Woods has every right to keep playing the 2013 Masters based on the committee’s ruling and its own set of “unusual circumstances.”
But if he comes from behind on Sunday for the first time in his career to win a major, the raging debate on whether he should have been given the chance will never end.