AUGUSTA, Ga. — On Friday, Tiger Woods made a gigantic blunder in applying the rules of golf, a brain cramp unworthy of a veteran pro. Perhaps his incredible bad luck, watching a near-perfect wedge shot hit the flagstick, yet bounce back off the 15th green into the water, numbed him with shock. But his subsequent mistake, taking an improper drop, ultimately cost him two shots and will haunt and may doom his chances to win this Masters.
But that’s all he did wrong.
Woods was so unaware of his gaffe that he gave three TV interviews in which he described in detail what he thought was a smart piece of strategy but was in reality a clear violation of a rule so simple many hackers grasp it.
In fact, Woods’s candid comments were the sole cause of his penalty.
It’s hard to believe that Woods, a tour pro for 17 years and a high-level competitor for more than 25, could not know or could even become temporarily confused about where you drop a ball after you hit into water.
But it is far harder to believe that Woods would deliberately break a rule, benefit by it, get away with it, sign his card for it, stand in fourth place in the Masters after 36 holes and then voluntarily tell the world every pertinent fact that could get him penalized or disqualified from the Masters. In fact, with current data, it is impossible to believe. Tiger just screwed up.
The Masters itself was also caught in a tough spot. Its officials learned from a TV viewer that Woods might have broken a rule on the 15th, but by the time Woods reached the 18th hole on Friday, officials had decided that Woods’s drop was “close enough” to proper. So they never even notified Woods that there might have been a problem.
When Woods himself explained that he had dropped his ball two yards behind the point of his initial water-ball divot so that he would have a better yardage for his wedge shot, everything was changed. By 10 p.m., head Masters rules dude Fred Ridley (he has a title but it’s just too long to type) knew of Woods’s quotes and realized, if they were accurate, that a penalty was coming.
Ridley was also certain that a new golf rule — 33-7, created in 2011 after an incident involving Padraig Harrington in Abu Dhabi the year before — would come into play. For centuries, any golfer who signed an incorrect scorecard, for any reason including acts of God, was disqualified. If it was good enough for Scottish shepherds and Bobby Jones, shouldn’t it be good enough forever?
Not really. A fan watching on TV dropped a dime on Harrington, claiming his ball had moved at address. A review of high-definition TV revealed that the ball had moved “three dimples.” Harrington, after what he thought was an innocent, honest 65, discovered he’d been disqualified. To protect players from such retroactive justice — or injustice — Rule 33-7 gave tournament officials the option in “extraordinary circumstances” to penalize a player retroactively, based on new information, yet not disqualify him. After all, the scorecard he signed was accurate by the information available at that time. Ridley deemed Woods an excellent example of the case law.
He’s right. And Woods was fully entitled to abide by it.
Woods is such a strong taste that it’s really hard to clear your palate to judge the next course. In the span of 24 hours, he has been both one of the unluckiest golfers in history and one of the most fortunate. It’s hard to keep both in the mind’s eye, but you can’t get a worse break than hitting the stick and going in the water and you can’t get a better one than a rule change in ’11 that lets you have a chance to win the ’13 Masters when you would have been booted out of every other Masters for the same goof.
When Woods’s shot hung in the air above the 15th on Friday, he thought he was about to make a birdie “four.” Now, there is an “eight” in that spot on the scoreboard. If, somehow, he overcomes one of the worst four-shot catastrophes in major tournament annals and wins on Sunday, and he may after this 70, his victory would be celebrated, debated and probably cursed by some until the last three-putt on the fifth moon of Jupiter in the 30th century. Even if Woods doesn’t win his first major in five years, the arguments about this April in the pines are not going away any decade soon.
As Woods played the fourth hole on Saturday, Don Fishel, a fan from Columbus, Ohio, was asked his opinion of the complex, consuming controversy. Fishel apologized for not having a flashy, reporter-friendly opinion. “It just seems like Tiger made an honest mistake,” he said.
Moments later, Woods missed an eight-foot putt and bogeyed the fourth hole. “Ohhhh, Tiger,” moaned a fan, commiserating with Woods.
Nearby, a white-haired man said, preaching to the crowd, “God’s got his eyes out for people who act like he does and play like he does.”
“There’s your [other] opinion,” Fishel said.
Long ago, Bobby Jones, who created the Masters, was complimented for calling a penalty on himself that no one else saw. He said that he no more deserved congratulation for such an act than “for not robbing a bank.” On Saturday, Jones might have withdrawn from the Masters to honor the spirit of the rules of golf. But then Bobby Jones wouldn’t let people of color play in his tournament to honor the spirit of the South. So, pick your poison.
In a world that lusts for harsh judgments on complicated issues, some will harangue Woods, or relish his misfortune. And some may pelt the Masters for invoking a rule that feels like a convenient loophole.
Here’s what matters: Woods provided the information for his own penalty. His score is exactly what it should be. The Masters went by the letter of current golf rules. Woods has a right to be here Sunday.
And, despite everything that has happened, including an amazing 360-degree lip-out of a three-foot birdie putt at the eighth hole Saturday, Woods is tied for seventh place, within striking distance of leaders who may fold.
“I’m right there in the ballgame with a great chance to win this championship,” Woods said. Except for everything that happened at the 15th hole on Friday, he would actually be tied for the lead.
What will be on Woods’s mind on Sunday: his amazing bad-luck bounce, his incredible two-shot bonehead penalty or his good fortune at still playing? More likely, all those thoughts will swirl about in his mind, like the winds above the Amen Corner, as millions of us wait and watch.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.