What Penalty Now For Tiger?
It was disorienting to see Tiger Woods, after being assessed a two-stroke penalty in the second round of the BMW Championship for improperly causing his ball to move, continue to argue he didn't do it.
It meant going against the judgment of venerated PGA Tour rules official Slugger White. It meant essentially ignoring close-up film evidence that showed the ball lower and turn slightly in soft ground after Woods removed a nearby twig. It was Woods essentially attaching his reputation to an old punch line: "Who you going to believe, me or your lyin' eyes?"
Perhaps Woods was manufacturing a motivating scenario, or striking back at the tyranny of having his every move on the course hyper-scrutinized. Woods has always had a tough time admitting a mistake, a trait that former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman once said is "more true the more successful the player." And Woods takes pride in being stubborn, illustrated when he recreated the awkward scene in the scoring trailer. "They replayed it again and again and again," he said, "and I felt the same way."
Whatever satisfaction, though, Woods gained by sticking to his guns, he was playing a dangerous game in which he had nothing to win, and a lot to lose. In his 17 years as a pro, Woods as a golfer has built a reputation among his peers for being honorable and respectful of the game's rules and traditions.
Even after three previous rules controversies this year, the most celebrated being his bad drop on the 15th hole during the second round of the Masters, Woods' integrity among other players has never been in question. It was presumed that in the event of a close call, Woods would follow the competitor's unwritten rule of taking a penalty to erase any doubt of impropriety.
It's a tradition especially followed by the greatest champions, who customarily feel the highest obligation to represent the game at its best. The most magnanimity is reserved for rules questions involving an accidentally moved ball. There's a long history of self-imposed penalties in which no one but the player saw the ball move, starting with Bobby Jones at the 1925 U.S. Open. Inbee Park at the Evian Championship and Nick Watney at the BMW each called penalties on themselves for improperly causing their balls to move.
But Woods broke with that tradition at Conway Farms. It's not that his claim -- that in real time he believed his ball only oscillated -- wasn't believable. That assertion would have held up against the word of another player or a fan, or even the challenge of an official. But the close-up image captured on film made all testimony moot.
That Woods disputed the visual evidence in the scoring trailer, to the point of admittedly getting "pretty hot," evoked the image of Michelle Wie's petulant and feeble self-defense at the 2010 Kia Classic, when she said she had grounded her club in the water to balance herself. It was a claim that video replay clearly refuted.
At the BMW, Woods had a chance on Saturday to wipe the slate clean by saying that he had been in error and accepted his penalty as proper. Instead, his unbending denial in the face of such strong evidence hurt his good name. Now there is potential to doubt that Woods will keep protecting the field above his own self-interest. It means all the respect he has earned is unofficially under reassessment.
It has happened to others. When Colin Montgomerie denied he had moved his ball while addressing a putt at the 2002 Volvo Masters, he was given a pass. But when cameras determined Montgomerie replaced his ball in an improved position at the 2005 Indonesia Open, many players retroactively revoked it while tempering their former regard for the Hall of Famer.
Woods could be similarly evaluated. Although many questioned the location of his drop after he pulled his drive into the water on the 14th hole on his way to victory at the Players Championship, an aerial shot was inconclusive and Woods, who had received agreement on where to drop from playing partner Casey Wittenberg, was absolved of suspicion. After the BMW, that drop may be remembered differently.
None of this will be talked about by the players publicly. There is no percentage in saying anything less than positive words about Woods. And it's part of the players' code to keep such things among themselves.
Moreover, the players above all others appreciate how very difficult it is to be Tiger Woods. It makes them that much more admiring of his game, and that much more forgiving of his flaws. But that doesn't keep what happened at the BMW from being disorienting.