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Former USGA rules official explains Woods ruling

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(Editor's note: Kendra Graham, former USGA director of women's competitions, explains the ruling on Tiger Woods' illegal drop, and subsequent two-stroke penalty, Friday at the Masters.)

During the second round on Friday April 12, Tiger Woods hit his third shot onto the green at the par-5 15th hole. It struck the flagstick and bounced back into the pond in front of the green. This pond is defined as a water hazard with yellow painted lines. In this instance, the player had three options.


Rule 26-1 - The player may under penalty of one stroke

a. Proceed under the stroke and distance provision of Rule 27-1 by playing a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played (see Rule 20-5); or

b. Drop a ball behind the water hazard, keeping the point at which the original ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped, with no limit to how far behind the water hazard the ball may be dropped; or

A Dropping Zone (or Ball Drop) was also established by the Committee and was located short left of the pond. Appendix I to the Rules of Golf suggests establishing special areas on which balls may or must be dropped when it is not feasible or practicable to proceed exactly in conformity with Rule 26-1 (Water Hazards and Lateral Water Hazards). The Committee recognized that with certain hole locations on the 15th hole, dropping a ball in accordance with Rule 26-1b may not be possible, therefore, a Ball Drop is necessary. It is an underlying principle to the Rules of Golf that the player should not be limited to just the stroke-and-distance option when proceeding under Rule 26-1.

The reference point the player would have used in proceeding under Rule 26-1b would have been the point where the ball last crossed the water hazard, which in this case, would have been where it rolled into the pond after having struck the flagstick.

As was evidenced at the time, Tiger walked down to the pond and surveyed the Ball Drop and possibly where he might have dropped a ball in accordance with Rule 26-1b. He then returned to the area from which he had last played.


Rule 20-2b – Dropping and Re-Dropping; Where to Drop

When a ball is to be dropped as near as possible to a specific spot, it must be dropped not nearer the hole than the specific spot which, if it is not precisely known to the player, must be estimated.

In this instance, the specific spot was known since there was a divot from the previous stroke. (In many cases, there will not be a divot or other indicator as to the specific spot, underscoring the need for the language “as nearly as possible.”) Tiger dropped the ball and played it, scoring bogey 6 on the hole. Prior to completion of his round, the Committee received a phone call from a television viewer who believed Tiger may have played from a wrong place.


Rule 20-7, Playing from Wrong Place

c. Stroke Play – If a player makes a stroke from a wrong place, he incurs a penalty of two strokes under the applicable Rule. He must play out the hole with the ball played from the wrong place, without correcting his error, provided he has not committed a serious breach (see Note 1).

Note 1: A competitor is deemed to have committed a serious breach of the applicable Rule if the Committee considers he has gained a significant advantage as a result of playing from a wrong place.

In this case, the applicable Rule is 26 (the general penalty is listed at the end of the Rule). There is a penalty regardless of whether the player plays from a wrong place on purpose or by accident, knowingly or unknowingly. Intent has nothing to do with the outcome. A common breach of this Rule occurs when a competitor moves his ball-marker on the putting green because it interferes with his fellow-competitor’s play. If he forgets to move it back and plays from a wrong place, he incurs a two-stroke penalty under the applicable Rule (in that scenario, Rule 20-3a). Also important is the second part of Rule 20-7c. The error is NOT CORRECTED unless a SERIOUS BREACH has occurred, which to some players is counterintuitive. Suffice it to say that the additional two strokes take care of any small or insignificant advantage that may have been gained. The Rule goes on to explain what a player should do if he believes a serious breach has occurred. (Note 1 gives guidance regarding a serious breach.)


Tiger Woods

Prior to Tiger finishing his round and signing his scorecard, the Committee looked at the footage and consulted with officials who were on the hole while the drop occurred. They determined that the ball had been dropped “near enough” to where he had last played, and in their eyes there was no breach of Rule 20-7. They chose neither to discuss the incident with Tiger nor to keep him from signing his scorecard. But during his post-round huddle with the media, when asked about his fifth shot on the 15th hole, Tiger shared the following:

“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. 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.”

When this information was brought to the Committee’s attention late Friday night, it changed their opinion about him dropping the ball “near enough” and their decision not to penalize him. This statement indicated that Tiger had not attempted to drop the ball “as nearly as possible” to the spot where he had last played. He stated he had purposely dropped the ball 2 yards behind that point, which ultimately meant he had played from a wrong place. Although Tiger did say he intended to drop his ball 2 yards behind the previous spot, it is important to note that this statement does not mean that the player intended to drop the ball in a wrong place and play it from there or to intentionally break a Rule. It merely clarified that he had not abided by Rule 26-1a by playing a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.

The Committee asked Tiger to meet with them Saturday, and after Tiger confirmed his statements from the previous day, the Committee concluded that he had played from a wrong place and that he must incur a penalty of two strokes. However, Rule 6-6d (Wrong Score for Hole) explains the competitor is responsible for the correctness of the score recorded for each hole on his score card. If he returns a score for any hole lower than actually taken, he is disqualified.

In many similar circumstances, a player would have been disqualified for a breach of Rule 6-6d. A player is not absolved from penalty under this Rule for failure to include a penalty that he did not know he had incurred. However, in this case, the Committee believed that they had done the player an injustice by not discussing the possible infraction of Rule 20-7 with him before he signed his scorecard and thus used Rule 33-7 to correct the situation.


Rule 33-7, Disqualification Penalty; Committee Discretion

A penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted.

Any penalty less than disqualification must not be waived or modified.

If the Committee had had Saturday’s conversation with Tiger on Friday before he signed his scorecard with Tiger providing the same information, he would have received a two-stroke penalty for playing from a wrong place (ultimately, the net result ended up being the same). It is important to keep in mind that the reason the Committee used their discretion and invoked Rule 33-7 was because they considered his infraction before he signed his scorecard and incorrectly determined it a non-event. The outcome would have been different had they not learned of his possible breach until after he had signed his scorecard. Had that been the case, Tiger would have been disqualified for a breach of Rule 6-6d and the Committee would not have used Rule 33-7.

Rule 33-7 is not new; it has been in the book, according to my research, since 1952. Rule 33 (The Committee) outlines all of the responsibilities of the Committee in charge of a competition and is one of the longest Rules in the book. Its counterpart is Rule 6 (The Player), which highlights all of the player’s responsibilities. There is a relatively new Decision 33-7/4.5 (went into effect in 2011 and was revised in 2012), which often was mentioned in connection with this ruling. It really had very little, if any, bearing on the decision made by this Committee. The wording of Rule 33-7 is quite broad and lets the Committee use their discretion in waiving, modifying or imposing a penalty of disqualification. (They do not have that right in regard to waiving or modifying a lesser penalty, e.g., one stroke, two strokes, loss of hole.)

Decisions are written to help interpret and further clarify the Rules of Golf. Decision 33-7/4.5 was written to give guidance to Committees on when to use Rule 33-7. It gives many different examples as to when the Committee would be justified in waiving a penalty of DQ and when the Committee would not be justified.

In this case, the Committee felt justified in using Rule 33-7 to waive the penalty of disqualification because they knew of the player’s possible breach before he signed his scorecard. They do not have to “fit” their reason into one of the scenarios listed in Decision 33-7/4.5. The most recognizable example in this new decision relates to a situation involving a player and HD television. The decision explains that the use of Rule 33-7 by the Committee in absolving a player of a DQ penalty involving a breach of a Rule that was only detectable by HD television would be justified.

The decision is not all encompassing. It is there to provide insight, but ultimately, the Committee makes the final decision.

In conclusion, it is important to keep in mind the words found in Rule 34-3, Committee’s Decision. In the absence of a referee, any dispute or doubtful point on the Rules must be referred to the Committee, whose decision is final.