Behind Closed Doors
The scrambling, confusion and intrigue behind Tiger Woods' two-shot penalty underscores the peculiarities of the rules-making world -- and larger tensions among the game's power brokers as a decision on anchoring looms
When a television viewer prompted a Masters competition committee to review Tiger Woods' now-infamous ball drop, the caller initiated what has become a standard modern-golf video review. The assessment in this case, unknown to Woods, allowed the four-time champion to go through a normal scorecard signing without a clue that anyone had questioned the drop. Committee chairman Fred Ridley's initial A-OK assessment, revisited when Woods admitted to taking a drop in a different location than the rules allowed, opened the door for the committee to later invoke an unusual disqualification reversal.
In other words, the caller unintentionally saved Augusta National and Woods from a disqualification unlike any other.
The Rules of Golf and their assorted interpretations arose again at a time of unprecedented rancor in the rules-making world. Set against the backdrop of the controversial proposed anchored-stroke ban, the provocative air surrounding the Woods ruling came a day after European Tour official John Paramor gave 14-year-old Tianlang Guan a deserved but unpopular one-stroke penalty for slow play. Those on-course incidents, mixed with behind-the-scenes politicking and another major won by a player using an anchored putter, exacerbate the already strained atmosphere in a behind-the-scenes power struggle over who shapes the game's future.
Masters week commenced when Augusta National chairman Billy Payne announced a bold and exciting competition borrowing liberally from the NFL's successful Punt, Pass & Kick youth program, in which qualifying children will get to test their skills on Augusta National's range and 18th green a day before next year's tournament week begins. For insiders, the sight of the club partnering with their bickering counterparts at the USGA and PGA of America seemed to ease some tension. At least until a reporter jokingly asked whether kids would be prevented from entering Drive, Chip & Putt if they used an anchored putter.
"[The anchoring issue] is pending before the USGA Executive Committee, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment one way or the other," USGA president Glen Nager stiffly replied from a podium where he sat with Payne and PGA of America president Ted Bishop.
"I think Glen and I were really kind of hoping that we could come here this week and maybe take a week off from the anchoring discussions," Bishop added, also without humor. The awkward reactions of both men suggested continuing tension over the PGA of America's high-profile disagreement with the proposed ban by the USGA/R&A, which might be announced as soon as April 23.
Actually, it was an early week confrontation that really had gossipers buzzing underneath Augusta National's big oak. After Bishop tried to initiate a friendly conversation with R&A chief executive Peter Dawson by contending his organization's position was "nothing personal," Dawson replied that it was "very personal" to the R&A and that the damage done by the PGA of America's opposition had made the fissure between the organizations "irreparable." Rather than respond, Bishop walked away.
The undercard: Before Woods' drop became the main event, slow play by teen amateur Guan drew several warnings and then a one-stroke penalty from veteran official Paramor (below). Photos: J.D. Cuban
Wednesday brought Payne's annual press conference, and the always affable Masters chairman was ebullient discussing the club's addition of two female members, calling it "just awesome." Moments later he was asked about the proposed anchoring ban, a question anticipated for months after the club had declined to offer a public statement during the USGA and R&A's comment period.
"We are a golf club that puts on a tournament, so we wouldn't be presumptuous to say that we have that kind of influence," said Payne, no longer ebullient. Alternating his eyes between the assembled writers and his notes, Payne's carefully chosen words sounded intentionally vague.
"Given the fact that the ruling bodies have not yet declared a decision following that open comment period," he said, "I do think it would be inappropriate for us to express an opinion other than to say that we hope and believe that they can reach common ground so that golf will continue under one set of rules."
Payne's ambiguity was later clarified by rules officials familiar with the situation who were under the impression that Augusta National's refusal to issue a position was the result of last-minute politicking by USGA and R&A officials. Payne, a grow-the-game advocate, was reportedly swayed by the PGA of America's and the PGA Tour's case that anything that might cause even a few golfers to quit would be a mistake. Yet Payne's respect for the Rules of Golf and the club's highly successful Asia-Pacific Amateur partnership with the R&A also left him conflicted enough to wheel out the "common ground" pledge. It did little to pave the way for a peaceful solution to the anchoring conflict.
Even the feel-good story of Tianlang Guan was tainted by a rules controversy after the 14-year-old was penalized by European Tour official John Paramor during his second round. Although no one questioned the validity of the penalty because of Guan's excessive "times" and blatant refusal to speed up when asked on four separate occasions (see page 31), the specter of singling out the youngest player ever to compete in the tournament on a day he battled to make the cut caused a social-media eruption over the rules committee's sudden interest in policing pace of play.