The Loop

The Tiger Fiasco: Understanding what went wrong and who's to blame

April 13, 2013

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Buzzards began circling the Tiger Woods rules dust-up about six hours after it happened, and like the buzzard, it began looking uglier the closer one got. None of the entities -- Tiger, the Masters rules committee, the Rules of Golf or an increasingly manic Twitterverse -- have come out looking better for it. To describe the incident and its implications, we can only borrow a movie title and say, It's Complicated. Here is a primer on the incident and what we should know and think so far.


What happened on the 15th hole on Friday?

Tiger's third shot to the green of the par-5 15th clattered off the flagstick and into the pond fronting the green. After some deliberation, Tiger dropped a ball and chose to play his next shot -- his fifth, with the penalty stroke -- from what he later said was "two yards" farther from where he had splashed his third.

So what rule did Tiger violate?

There are a few options under Rule 26. Tiger chose to proceed under Rule 26-1a, which requires that a player drop his ball "as near as possible" from the place from where he had played his previous shot. By dropping a couple of yards farther from that place and then hitting a shot, Tiger was in violation -- not of Rule 26, but of Rule 20-7 (playing from a wrong place). He proceeded without knowing he had violated a Rule, and upon finishing the round, signed his card and left the premises.

What happened next?

For hours, nothing. A television viewer watching ESPN's live coverage did what viewers these days are wont to due -- he or she phoned Augusta National and informed persons there that a violation had occurred. The Masters rules committee duly reviewed tape of the incident, and essentially shrugged it off. They saw no apparent violation.

How could the officials miss this?

It's easy to hold the cudgels up to rules officials, but the real-world interpretation and application of rules can be dicey. Remember the murky component of Rule 26 and the phrase, "as near as possible." No specific measure for where Tiger should have dropped is outlined. The threshold is not clearly delineated. This happens in golf. Unlike Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, who stated he could not define pornography but knew it when he saw it, the committee was left to make an organic determination as to whether Tiger went too far. It decided he had not.

Where and when did the real indictment start?

After Tiger completed his round, he stated in a TV interview that he'd dropped and played about two yards from the spot from where that very visible first divot rested. This alarmed the Masters rules folks, who now had palpable evidence that Tiger had done something other than drop at a spot "as near as possible" from that initial divot. Tiger became the driver of an automobile telling a peace officer that he'd had a couple of beers; the committee had no choice but to investigate further. They contacted Tiger and arranged for a full recounting first thing Saturday morning.

Should Tiger have been disqualified? After all, he signed for a score that was incorrect.

The committee could have imposed a DQ -- the equivalent of a death sentence -- but chose to commute it to a two-stroke penalty. The committee is empowered to do this under the sweeping authority of Rule 33-7, under which penalties can be modified or even rescinded completely. It's an enormous power, but one we suppose the committee felt was appropriate because it could have intervened and saved Tiger while the episode on Friday unfolded, but did not. In a sense -- and this is opinion -- the committee was covering for its failure to police the incident properly. It is saying, "It's our fault, too."

So did Tiger intentionally break the rules?

A wonderfully lascivious assumption maybe, and one not lost among bloggers and Tweeters. But a deliberate breach of the rules on this kind of public stage is implausible. Millions of people were watching Tiger in a setting as stark and visible as exists in sport. A blatant rules violation would be like Bubba Watson trying to hide his hovercraft under a kitchen counter. Tiger clearly proceeded with clear intent at the 15th, but in the welter of the moment, probably misunderstood the parameters of the rule. It happens. Say what you will about Tiger's integrity in some aspects of life, but in golf, it has been a 35-year record of impeccability.

Should Tiger have taken the "high road" and withdrawn from the tournament?

Some are in a high dudgeon of moral righteousness on this point, but I don't see it. A harsh eye is always merited by small but sharply defined violations; no quarter can be given when a player blatantly runs afoul of the rules. DQs often seem like an inescapable option. But Tiger's failing to play from "as near as possible" from that spot was a violation that nobody on the Augusta National premises noticed. If Tiger had fallen on his sword, it would have been a great P.R. move, but not one that delivered justice to the field.

The best call here is to send the buzzard back to its nest.