AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was difficult Saturday, as Tiger Woods stood over every putt on every green, to look at his score and avoid wondering what his standing at the Masters might be had that score been two shots better. Woods remained in the field, remained relevant and in contention. But his day began under extraordinary circumstances: with an 8 a.m. meeting, an assessment that he had violated a rule in Friday’s second round, and with a two-shot penalty.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Woods said.
So began a controversial and contentious Saturday at the Masters, one that opened with discussion of Woods’s potential disqualification — though officials from Augusta National Golf Club said that was not an option by the time they met with Woods to discuss the infraction. What happened instead was Woods began play Saturday at 1 under par and five shots off the lead rather than 3 under and in position to apply real pressure.
Yet after his steely 70 Saturday, he is back at 3 under. None of his 14 major championships have come when he has trailed entering the final round. Certainly, he has never entered Sunday at a Masters with the specter of a penalty both hanging over his head and dragging down his score. Yet here he is, four back of the lead held by Angel Cabrera and Brandt Snedeker after an unusual and unsettling day.
“It started off, obviously, different,” Woods said. “But I’m right there in the ballgame . . . with a great shot to win this championship.”
The situation involved so many hot buttons in golf – Woods, its brightest star; the rules, which are nothing if not arcane; and, perhaps, the perception of double standards. Friday, officials penalized 14-year-old amateur Guan Tianlang one shot for slow play. Masters officials, though, laid out their case that Woods’s actions at the 15th hole did not warrant disqualification.
“If this had been John Smith from wherever, he would have gotten the same ruling,” said Fred Ridley, the chairman of Augusta National’s competition committee. “Because, again, it is the right ruling under these circumstances.”
The exceptionally unusual situation arose from Woods’s most disappointing moment in Friday’s second round, when he hit what appeared to be an excellent pitch shot into the 15th green. The ball, though, bounced off the flagstick and ricocheted back into the water that runs in front of the green.
At the time, it appeared only to be a bit of remarkable misfortune. But each televised shot is monitored by millions, all potentially amateur referees. Not long after Woods dropped his ball to play what would be his fifth shot at 15, viewers wondered about the propriety of his drop. Before Woods was done with his round, one had called Augusta National concerned about a possible violation. Masters officials reviewed tape of the incident and determined Woods had done nothing wrong.
Yet after Friday’s round, Woods made an admission that raised further questions. “I went back to where I played it from,” he said, “but I went two yards further back.”
“I wasn’t even really thinking,” Woods said Saturday. “I was still a little ticked at what happened.”
Thus, two rules came into play. Rule 26-1 provides three options. Woods could have dropped in the designated drop zone. He could have dropped “as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.” Or he could have dropped “keeping the point at which the original ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped, with no limit to how far behind the water hazard the ball may be dropped.”
But Woods’s interview indicated that he hadn’t dropped precisely at the spot from which he played his last shot, nor on the proper line. Indeed, Ridley said he received a message from a CBS official at 10 p.m. Friday that Woods’s words had created some doubt about his score, so they set up a meeting for Saturday morning. At the end of that discussion, Ridley said he believed Woods had violated Rule 26-1, and the two-shot penalty would be assessed.
But in this case, another rule — perhaps even more important — was applied: Rule 33-7, which reads, in part, “A penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted.” In essence, even though Woods signed a scorecard for 71, and he would be assessed a score of 73, he could continue play.
“Disqualification, this morning, was not even on the table,” Ridley said.
So with that, Woods played. He said he never considered withdrawing.
“Under the rules of golf, I can play,” he said. “I was able to go out there and compete and play.”