By now, everybody on the planet who plays golf and many who don’t, know that Tiger Woods was involved in a rules imbroglio that escalated into a brouhaha which fomented into an open sore on the very soul of the game of golf…at least in some quarters.
It has been complicated by an ignorance of the rules by many (including Tiger), especially by those who are most fervent about their positions. And many of them are postulated based on a love/hate relationship with Tiger.
Tiger hit his laid-up approach shot to the par-5 15th so perfectly on Friday, it hit the flagstick on the fly and ricocheted off to the left and into the fronting pond. It was a cruel reward for his excellence. At that point, he had three options under Rule 26-1, “Relief For Ball in Water Hazard.”
- Proceed to the provided drop circle and play from there; Tiger took a look but the shot was too difficult given the pin position.
- On a line from the flagstick to where the ball went into the water, drop a ball as far back as he wanted on this side of the pond; that was a better angle for the shot, but the grandstands blocked him from going back far enough to spin the ball.
- “Playing a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.” This was the best option.
For those of us just enjoying his talent, we watched as he took his drop and hit his recovery shot three feet from the pin.
For those of us watching his every move with eagle eyes, including ensuring that he took a proper drop within the rules, they picked up the phone and started dialing. They claimed that Tiger had not dropped as close to his original shot’s divot “as nearly as possible” appeared to call for.
The Committee, consisting of three highly distinguished rules officials, began reviewing the video as Tiger was finishing his round. As he was playing 18, they arrived at the decision that he was close enough to the original spot and that no further action was required. There are conflicting reports on whether Tiger was questioned by the Committee, but I seem to remember Tiger saying that he was, no penalty was incurred and everybody went home to dinner.
On his way to the parking lot and unbeknownst to the Committee at the time, Tiger gave one of those quick, standup interviews to ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi in which he described his thinking in taking the drop. It had, after all, been a very exciting shot:
So I went back to where I played it from, but I went two yards further back… [in order to avoid hitting the flag again]… It worked out perfectly.
And it did, indeed, work out perfectly. When the ball skidded to a stop, he could have kicked it in..with his left foot. He rolled it in to save a bogey.
For those of us half groggy from hours of Masters coverage, it was a celebration of his greatness that he could hit two such identical shots. Outlining his thinking with Rinaldi only added to what had already been a sublime experience…and went unnoticed by almost everyone.
But renegades somehow got through to the Committee again and pointed out that Tiger’s interview was effectively a confession that he had knowingly dropped “two yards” away from “as nearly as possible.” Uh, oh.
In the Committee’s minds, this was not such a tragedy because they had effectively already ruled that he had been “as closely as possible” enough, there had been no penalty, end of story. Until this.
So they called Tiger to the course to get his version of events, he acknowledged the error and accepted a two-stroke penalty. Graciously, it was reported. As for the possibility of disqualification, the Committee felt that was off the table because of their initial ruling and Tiger would have had no way to know that any of this was coming.
And, hence, the invocation of the “High Def Rule,” 33-7/4.5:
…If the Committee is satisfied that the competitor could not reasonably have known or discovered the facts resulting in his breach of the Rules, it would be justified under Rule 33-7 in waiving the disqualification penalty…The penalty stroke(s) associated with the breach would, however, be applied…
Which is what happened and Tiger scurried off to prepare for his round.
Rule 33-7 is the new rule that protects the players from call-in, couch officials. The most famous example of why this was implemented is in the unattributed example they used of Padraig Harrington in Abu Dhabi.
A competitor moves his ball on the putting green with his finger in the act of removing his ball-marker. The competitor sees the ball move slightly forward but is certain that it has returned to the original spot, and he plays the ball as it lies. After the competitor signs and returns his score card, video footage is brought to the attention of the Committee that reveals that the ball did not precisely return to its original spot.
When questioned by the Committee, the competitor cites the fact that the position of the logo on the ball appeared to be in exactly the same position as it was when he replaced the ball and this was the reason for him believing that the ball returned to the original spot.
As it was reasonable in these circumstances for the competitor to have no doubt that the ball had returned to the original spot, and because the competitor could not himself have reasonably discovered otherwise prior to signing and returning his score card, it would be appropriate for the Committee to waive the disqualification penalty. The two-stroke penalty for playing from a wrong place would, however, be applied to the competitor’s score.
But I would argue that that is not exactly what happened here. Tiger was all too aware that he had not dropped “as closely as possible,” he said as much. Why, some ask, would he incriminate himself unless he thought he was acting in good faith? While he may have been acting in good faith — I don’t doubt that given the innocence of his confession — he was minimally operating in ignorance of the rule. And it is a long established convention of the game that ignorance of the rules is not a defense.
Since dropping after your ball goes into a water hazard is the most basic of rules professional golfers encounter, I don’t think he was ignorant of the rule. I think he was just caught up in the swirl of the moment; the terrible-luck bounce of the ball and his fierce competitive desire to get that stroke back as soon as possible. I was watching his face through this whole event and his neutral facial expression never changed, even though he said later that he was angry. Anger does have a way of clouding your consciousness.
So while he may technically be protected from disqualification by the rule and the Committee’s good intentions to do the right thing, the time-honored convention in such ambiguous circumstances is to withdraw.
It happens all the time. Mark Calcavecchia once withdrew from the airport when he later realized he’d broken a rule. I was recently told of another player who tried to do the same thing, but the Committee said the tournament’s books were closed. He donated his purse to charity. And I had to DQ myself the second morning of Champions Tour Q-School when I took my rule book to dinner that first night to make sure I had proceeded correctly when I took a drop.
Tiger may have the benefit of feeling that he is justifiably proceeding under the Rules of Golf and feel that he has a clear conscience. The Committee blessed this after all.
But I’m sure that this is more like the public service spot of the frenzied high school basketball team close to the end of the game. The ball is knocked out of bounds and the referee whistles the ball in favor of the good guys. But Alex knows that he touched the ball last and confesses it to the coach in the time-out huddle. The team chides him for looking this gift horse in the mouth: the ref made the call!
“Oh, come on, Alex!”
“Coach, I touched it,” he honorably insists.
The coach, caught up in the moment, wants that ball, but his face softens as he realizes that Alex is right.
As the team trots back onto the court, the coach calls out, “Hey Alex. Good call.” And Alex trots over to the ref to give him his confession.
Since Tiger has already given his confession, it’s time for him to make the good call.
For other thoughts across the web, see Geoff Shackleford’s excellent compilation.