As both my readers know, I am no Tiger Woods fan. My considerable Tiger shirt collection notwithstanding, I have called him the anti-role model on this very blog. And just when I thought it was difficult for me to dislike the guy any more, Dropgate happened.
If you’ve been on the moon since then, what happened on Friday afternoon slash Saturday morning is sure to be discussed to death in country club grill rooms for years to come. In brief, Tiger hit a perfect wedge shot to the green at no. 15 during Friday’s second round – so perfect, in fact, that it caromed off the flagstick and into the water hazard. Clearly flustered, Tiger weighed his drop options and, as he would later state in a post-round interview, dropped a ball two yards behind where he’d previously hit from so that he could take the same swing he’d just taken and not hit the flagstick again.
I was watching this on my couch and suspected he’d done something wrong, but I didn’t call in to that invisible guy you call to report rules violations. But someone did, and the Masters rules committee was made aware of the situation as Tiger played the 18th hole. The problem: under the drop rule under which he ostensibly proceeded, Tiger was required by rule to drop his ball as nearly as possible to the spot from where he last hit on pain of a two-stroke penalty. As ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski detailed (more), the committee decided before Tiger signed his scorecard that he had done nothing wrong. Amazingly, no one bothered to discuss the issue with Tiger after he completed his round or before he signed his scorecard. So Tiger signed his scorecard and gave the aforementioned, televised post-round interview where he admitted to dropping the ball two yards back of where he took his previous shot.
According to Wojciechowski, Masters rules committee chairman Fred Ridley was made aware of what Tiger said in his interview at 10 pm on Friday night. Faced now with what amounted to new evidence – Tiger’s unwitting admission – the committee reconsidered its previous decision and determined that it had gotten it wrong. Tiger’s drop was illegal after all. Tiger should have been assessed a two-stroke penalty — but he wasn’t. Technically, therefore, he signed an incorrect scorecard, a big-time no-no in the world of golf.
So here’s my take. First, Tiger’s drop was clearly illegal. Given the relief option he chose, Tiger was required by rule to take his drop as near as possible to the spot he took his last stroke from. Two yards back from that spot is clearly not that. Tiger, therefore, should have signed for an 8 on his scorecard instead of a 6. On this there is no debate.
Second, given its handling of the situation, the rules committee at least arguably made the correct call by assessing Tiger a two-stroke penalty rather than outright DQing him. Under rule 33-7, the competition committee “may in exceptional cases” waive the disqualification penalty. What made Friday’s case “exceptional” wasn’t the fact that it involved Tiger Woods or that it was The Masters – the rules committee wouldn’t soil the integrity of its much-revered competition with reasoning like that. Nor was it the fact that Tiger didn’t know he took an illegal drop when he took it: there is a specific Rules Decision (33-7/4.5) that says “ignorance of the rules or facts that the player could have discovered prior to signing his scorecard” are not sufficient reasons to waive to the disqualification penalty. What made this case “exceptional” was the rules committee’s botching of it — twice. First, it incorrectly concluded while Tiger was still playing that his drop was fine when it obviously wasn’t. (I wonder if the committee would have exonerated a certain fourteen-year old Chinese amateur with such alacrity.) Second, it didn’t take the very easy step of addressing the situation with Tiger before he signed his scorecard – an inexplicable error if ever there was one. The committee could have prevented Tiger from signing an incorrect scorecard, as the PGA did with Dustin Johnson after he brushed sand in a bunker on the 72nd hole at the 2010 PGA Championship. It just didn’t. The committee concluded, therefore, that it would have been, in Ridley’s words, “grossly unfair” to Tiger to disqualify him based on what he said in his interview when it could have prevented him from signing an incorrect scorecard.
This point is a lot closer than Ridley made it sound. Tiger’s exoneration happened without his knowledge, so effectively retracting that decision through disqualification doesn’t seem terribly unfair. Had Tiger relied on a ruling made by a rules official that turned out to be wrong, then “grossly unfair” would be an appropriate description. But that didn’t happen. The stronger argument is that it would be grossly unfair to use Tiger’s post-round interview against him but, from what I’ve read so far, that is not the argument the committee made.
Third, this situation will not mark the end of the “trial by TV viewer” era, as many players and commentators suggested yesterday. Cases where rules committees and players do not know about alleged rules infractions until after the player signed his scorecard will not be affected by this case, which PGA Tour player Aaron Oberholser curiously likened to “Supreme Court precedent.” Those cases will be unaffected because there will not be an intervening cause – a committee botch job – that would make disqualification “grossly unfair.” Ignorance of the rules or facts that the player could have discovered prior to signing his scorecard” remain an insufficient reason to waive the DQ penalty – by rule. Players will still get disqualified from time to time based on the minutest of infractions caught by guys on their couches with nothing better to do. Now, however, people will complain (wrongly) that there are two sets of rules – Tiger’s and everyone else’s.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Tiger should have withdrawn. It is incumbent upon players to follow the rules. If a player does not know them, it is incumbent upon him to call in a rules official. In this case, Tiger was dealing with a rule with which most mid-handicappers are familiar – how and where to drop a ball after you’ve drenched one. He just botched it. If he had any uncertainty he could have called for a rules official: he didn’t do that, either. In the end, he never played a ball from where the rules required him to play it – a spot he intentionally avoided lest he hit the flagstick again. Whether he would have hit the flagstick again, or come up short with an incrementally softer swing – neither we nor any of his competitors will ever know. What we do know is that Tiger did not play the 15th hole by the rules of golf like the rest of the field did. And while it arguably would have been unfair to Tiger to be DQ’ed after the committee exonerated him without his knowledge, the flipside is also true: it is unfair to the other players for Tiger to remain in the field just because the committee could have saved him but didn’t. And inasmuch as most of those other players wouldn’t have been on TV, they would not have been entitled to the benefit of the committee blowing a ruling if they had been accused of a wrong drop by, say, an on-course fan. Tiger’s acceptance of the committee’s gesture, therefore, was not the honorable thing to do in this most honorable of games.
Then again, this is a guy who cheated on his wife with every Waffle House waitress from here to Tallahassee, who cusses like a sailor at the slightest mishit, who throws clubs in front of kids and who, as a 22-year old, refused to autograph a golf ball to help his colleagues Brad Faxon and Billy Andrade raise money for charity.
Honor is the furthest thing from this guy’s mind.