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20 questions: Tiger Woods' Masters rule violation

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Now that we’re several days removed from the Tiger Woods rules situation at the Masters and the debate has died down and we can finally ...

What’s that? Oh, the debate hasn’t died down?

As you know by now, Woods took an illegal drop during the second round, in effect combining options of Rule 26-1 which state that he can either drop the ball as far back as needed from the point of entry or drop “as near as possible” to the original spot.

The ensuing situation – or fiasco or imbroglio, depending how deep you want to go into the thesaurus – has continued to be a polarizing issue. With so many lingering thoughts, let’s play Twenty Questions.

1. Why was the call made?

On Saturday morning, Fred Ridley, chairman of the Rules Committee for the Masters, confirmed that the drop was examined one day earlier by officials on video and deemed legal. Their mistake, though, was closing the case before Woods finished rather than speaking with him before he signed his scorecard.

After Woods emerged from the scoring area, he told a television reporter that he purposely moved 2 yards further back in order to have a better distance into the green. It was then that a red flag was raised, suggesting the committee should have spoken with him directly afterward.


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Perhaps the best descriptive analogy of the events that I’ve seen to date came from former PGA Tour professional Larry Rinker via Twitter: “Masters officials hit it OB by not talking to Tiger before he signed his scorecard. They took a mulligan by using rule 33-7.”

2. Was Rule 33-7 implemented in the proper manner?

It’s been suggested that Rule 33-7 contains a loophole. That’s only partly true. The reality is, Rule 33-7 is a loophole.

Here is the exact language for this rule:

“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 a Committee considers that a player is guilty of a serious breach of etiquette, it may impose a penalty of disqualification under this Rule.”

In layman’s terms, it basically means the Rules Committee can thwart any potential disqualification. Essentially, it becomes a judgment call.

3. Why didn’t Woods consult a rules official?

There was a little bit of déjà vu all over again working here. Earlier this year in Abu Dhabi, Woods failed to consult a rules official and had to call a penalty on himself prior to signing his scorecard.

It burned him then and burned him again at Augusta.

Then again, professional golfers shouldn’t need an official to make a drop. He knew the rule. As he admitted, he just made a mistake.

4. Should the Masters have a rules official assigned to every group?

It couldn’t hurt, but it may not help as much as you’d think, either.

Even though the tournament doesn’t assign an official to each group, Woods certainly could have called for one. Of course, at the time he didn’t realize he was illegally dropping. Some people have maintained that if an official was present, he could have prevented this, but unlike a football referee or baseball umpire, it isn’t the job of an official to make such calls without first being asked.

Call it a Catch-22: A golfer can’t call a rules official to make a ruling if he doesn’t know he’s breaking a rule.

5. Was Woods guilty of trying to cheat?

No. There’s a major difference between cheating and breaking the rules when it comes to integrity and morality, but under the Rules of Golf they are treated as one and the same. He made a mistake, as he said. A brain cramp, if you will.

But if you really think the world’s most popular golfer is trying to pull a fast one on millions of viewers on the world’s most popular golf course, then I’d love to hear your views about the second shooter on the grassy knoll. That’s a hell of a conspiracy theory to think Woods was knowingly trying to bend the rules right in plain sight.

6. Should television viewers be allowed to phone in rules violations?

Of course not. The idea is inane, archaic and doesn’t happen in any other sport.

But ...

Where is the line drawn? What if an on-course volunteer witnesses a violation? Or a fan in the gallery? How about if a rules official receives a text message from a buddy who’s watching at home? Should he not follow up on what could have been an infraction simply because it came from an outside source?

Perhaps an even better question in today’s social media-enhanced world: What if it’s not a single phone call, but a groundswell of support from the masses that a rule was broken? While Ridley acknowledged that Woods’ situation was reviewed when a viewer contacted an official, the potential news was sweeping through Twitter on Friday night, with golf professionals, rules gurus and thousands of interested fans making their opinions known.

So while it’s easy to contend that individual phone calls pointing out rules violations should be outlawed, there’s something equally wrong with ignoring a full-scale social media movement that is trying to correct an injustice.

7. Are top players actually at a disadvantage?

This entire situation should reignite debate about top players often having an unfair disadvantage because every shot they hit is televised.

It’s an issue that famously came to light when Dustin Johnson was called for grounding his club in a hazard on the final hole of the 2010 PGA Championship. With hundreds of bunkers across Whistling Straits, there’s little doubt that lesser-known players were guilty of committing the same infraction earlier in the week, just without the eyes of the world keeping a close watch on their every maneuver.

Same here. Not to impugn any other player, but if Thaworn Wiratchant, for instance, unknowingly committed the same violation on Thursday morning, it would have been much less likely to be called for the simple reason that fewer people were paying close attention.

8. How can this inequality be corrected?

Oh, that’s easy – cameras following every shot for every group, with each shot closely scrutinized for potential violations.

Yes, I’m kidding.

If you thought slow play was a problem now …

9. Why did Woods mention in a post-round interview that he moved 2 yards further back?

He obviously wasn’t trying to get himself in hot water, nor did he realize at the time that he had committed a violation.

What he was doing was gloating in a self-effacing way. Since his shot from 87 yards hit the flagstick, he moved to a spot 89 yards away instead. This was Woods essentially telling the world that his yardages are so dialed in, there’s a difference between his 87-yard shot and his 89-yard shot.

And apparently he’s right, since the first one hit the flagstick and the second stopped 2 feet away from the hole.

10. Why was this referred to as Dropgate?

Because four decades ago, there was a major political scandal that resulted from a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., and ever since then we collectively as a society haven’t been creative enough to find new names for scandals rather than just slapping the “gate” suffix on the end of something.

11. If Woods’ ball didn’t hit the flagstick and instead came to rest 2 feet from the hole, would he have won the Masters?

I’ll answer this with a statement they must teach in Golf Executive 101 classes, because every major exec in the game is well versed in using this phrase: “I don’t deal in hypotheticals.” Maybe it could have given him the momentum needed to make a serious run at the title. Maybe his fellow competitors would have felt a little extra heat with Tiger’s name on the leaderboard. It’s impossible to know.

Here’s what we do know, though: If Woods carded birdie instead of bogey and wasn’t subject to a two-stroke penalty, that would have been a four-shot swing. And what was the final differential between the winning score and that of Woods? That’s right. Four shots.

12. By issuing a two-stroke penalty instead of a disqualification, was Augusta National showing favoritism toward Woods?

I don’t deal in hypotheticals.

(Hey, this exec-speak is pretty fun.)

I would like to believe that if the exact same scenario happened to Marc Leishman or Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano or any other lesser-known player without four Masters titles, the exact same ruling would have been made. Perhaps that’s a myopic viewpoint. Maybe I’m just naïve. But without anything comparable, we have to give officials the benefit of the doubt.

13. But couldn’t Woods have been kept in the field to enhance weekend ratings?

If Augusta National officials were interested in ratings, they would have more televised coverage throughout all four days. If they were interested in further monetizing their event, they would have more commercial interruption than just four minutes per hour.

The truth is, they don’t need much help in either department anyway.

Sure, Woods’ inclusion on a leaderboard helps ratings. But the Masters is like the Olympics. Even those who don’t watch swimming and diving or track and field on a regular basis will pay attention when it’s the pinnacle of the sport.

14. Doesn’t that make such a rule totally subjective?

Sure does. Most rules in golf are black and white. This one has 50 shades of gray.

15. How has it been explained to current pros?

One PGA Tour member who wasn’t competing in the Masters texted me while this situation was under review. Prefacing his comments by contending he likes Woods and didn’t wish for him to be disqualified, he offered the following:

“You can't add the two shots in this case. They explicitly told us ignorance is not an excuse. This ruling is completely wrong. I'm 100 percent certain. We had a meeting about this exact thing.'

There’s a difference in the language here. Rule 33-7 is meant to save a player who unknowingly commits a violation from being disqualified. For example, if a player’s ball moves slightly after he grounds his club and he doesn’t see it, then signs his card and a rules official is alerted about the infraction, it keeps him in the tournament. What Woods was guilty of, though, was ignorance of the rules. It’s a player’s responsibility to know the rules and abide by them.

16. Was the right decision made?

Yes. And no.

As outlined above, Rule 33-7 is essentially a catch-all. By the letter of the law, a rules committee can overrule any potential disqualification – and that’s exactly what happened in this circumstance. Masters officials used this loophole and Woods was given a second life.

And yet, it still felt more than a bit disingenuous. Woods committed an infraction, signed his scorecard, was found guilty of a violation and therefore should have been disqualified. Like it or not, this is how the game works.

By the exact wording of the Rules of Golf, Woods both should have been disqualified and could have been saved under this particular language. If that sounds mind-bending, it should.

It also helps serve to explain why this is such a hot-button issue, even one week after it took place.

17. Should Woods have disqualified himself?

This is one of my biggest pet peeves to come out of this story. Players can’t DQ themselves. If Woods felt he should no longer compete in the tournament, he would have had to withdraw instead. Semantics, I know.

18.OK, should Woods have withdrawn?

I understand the notion that – strictly from a PR standpoint – he may have earned more respect from the masses by deciding that his incorrect scorecard was enough to warrant him bowing out of the tournament.

This breaking news just in: Woods cares more about winning major championships than good PR.

For those who believe he should have withdrawn, though, let’s examine the situation from the opposite perspective. In this scenario, Woods decides that two strokes isn’t the appropriate penalty and removes himself from the field. Sure, there are many who will applaud the decision. But it also contains a bitter vibe. If I don’t get my way, I’m going to take my ball and go home. Either way, he can’t win. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.

One day earlier, 14-year-old Tianlang Guan was cheered for accepting a penalty with class and not complaining about it. Yet when Woods accepts a penalty with class and doesn’t complain about it, that’s not good enough for some people. Smells like a rotten double-standard.

19. Will Woods’ legacy be tarnished by failing to withdraw?

Knowing fully that some of my most respected colleagues maintained this to be true, I can’t disagree more. When the epitaph is written for Woods’ career, this entire rules situation will be nothing more than a footnote, if it’s even mentioned at all.

20. And finally, will the 2013 Masters be remembered more for the Woods ruling than the actual winner?

If we had asked this question with the leaders already a few holes into the back nine on Sunday, it may have been true. If one player had pulled away from the pack and prevailed by three or four shots, it could have happened.

Instead, the final hour of the tournament turned into one of the most dramatic in recent memory, with Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera staging a back-and-forth contest of, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” It put the Woods situation on the back burner, a positive sign for the event and everyone involved. When the Australian sank a 12-foot birdie putt to clinch the victory, he wasn’t the only one who won.

After a weekend that was marred by slow play and penalties and rulings and debates, anyone turned off to the game through it all was turned back on to it by the grand finale.