Tiger Woods: Blew the Rule, Missed the Cut

Back in my Monday Qualifying days, I got myself in a situation that required me to make a determination on the rule for how I should proceed after hitting my ball in a greenside pond.

The problem was that the green had a steep bank that went down to a retaining wall that went six feet straight down into the water. The problem with that was that there was no place to drop the ball that wouldn’t immediately cause the ball to glance down into the water. And there was no place for a caddie to stand to catch it, the normal remedy. 

Fortunately, I was a rules nut — I had served on the Rules Committee at my home club — and I remembered an obscure decision in the rules that applied to this very circumstance. So I called my fellow competitor who was keeping my scorecard over, reviewed the rule with him and confirmed that he agreed with my interpretation.

The Decisions of the Rules of Golf are in the form of questions and answers. This was one of the fourteen decisions for Rule 20-2c together with its question:

Decision 20-2c/3 -Placing Ball Instead of Dropping When Obvious Dropped Ball Will Roll into Hazard, Etc.

Q. A player is required to drop a ball. However, it is obvious that the ball when dropped will roll into a hazard, more than two club-lengths, etc., in which case it must be re-dropped and then placed under Rule 20-2c. In such a case, is it permissible to waive the dropping requirement and allow the player initially to place the ball?

And to that question, I remembered the answer being yes. And so did my fellow competitor. So I placed the ball on the edge of oblivion, chipped it on the green and made my bogey.

Unfortunately, our memories were wrong; the correct answer was “no.” But I didn’t discover that until I took my Rules and Decisions Book to dinner that night just to double-check; I told you I was a rules nut.

So when I found the rule and its decision, the blood drained from my brain when I saw that I had been wrong. And because this all took place long after I had signed my card, I was forced to disqualify myself the next morning for turning in an incorrect scorecard. I hadn’t included the two penalty strokes.

So it was very hard for me to be critical of Tiger Woods on Friday when he was penalized two strokes and missed the cut in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Classic.

The Rules of Golf provide for relief when a player’s ball is embedded in its own pitch-mark. The player may lift, clean and drop the ball if it is embedded in a “closely mown area,” defined as any grass cut to fairway height.

Moreover, there is a Local Rule pertaining to this that all professional tours adopt that allows the player to take relief as long as the ball is “through the green,” meaning anywhere on the golf course that is not a hazard (bunkers and water).

But beyond that, there is a caveat that you cannot take said relief if the ball is embedded in a “sandy area,” for example, dunes on a links course.

Tiger’s tee shot flared out to the right and embedded in some vine-like ground cover. So he called Martin Kaymer over to confirm that the ball was embedded. Kaymer agreed that the ball was embedded. It seemed so obvious, they didn’t bother calling for an official. Tiger took his drop and, sand flying, pitched back out into the fairway. He went on to make his bogey.

It came to the officials’ attention when one of them passed by the site and knowledgeable fans asked why he received a drop from a sandy area?

Tiger found out that this was brewing up from behind him after he hit his tee shot on the 11th tee. So he had this ticking time bomb underneath his play into the house. He bogeyed the 11th.

But he got it together and made three birdies in a row on 14, 15 and 16. But bogeyed the 17th and couldn’t make birdie on the closing par-5 18th. With the two penalty strokes, he missed the cut by one.

In the heat of the moment, you don’t always think straight.

In the case of my faulty ruling, it didn’t make sense on the face of it. Oh, sure. You’re just going to select any old place that’s convenient for you to place a ball? But it made perfect sense in the moment. Does it make sense to drown two perfectly good balls just to establish the place? (The Tour official told me they had been working with the USGA “forever” to get them to change the rule.)

In Tiger’s case, he just didn’t know the rule. And neither did Kaymer. And neither did Joe LaCava, Tiger’s caddie. Although he wasn’t consulted, Rory McIlroy, the third player in the threesome, later confessed that he didn’t either. Not many players would. Everyone who witnessed what happened will never forget the rule, just as I have never forgotten mine.

And many will come away determined to contribute to the Golf Official Full Employment Act: always call for an official in out-of-the-way places on the golf course when you have occasion to make a ruling that you don’t make frequently…even if you think you know the rule.

To the detriment of so many well-intended players in so many cases, the only people who know rules like that are the officials.

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