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Saturday, April 13, 2013
Mistakes compounded in Tiger ruling

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods screwed up. He knows it ... now. Masters rules officials know it ... now. A television viewer knew it ... Friday?

Woods and Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano were introduced to the Masters patrons gathered 10 and 20 deep against the ropes of the No. 1 tee box at 1:45 p.m. ET on Saturday. And as much as it feels wrong or weird or ungentlemanly that Woods is still playing in this tournament, he has zilch to apologize for. That was true before he teed off. And it was true after he finished early Saturday evening.

As for the Masters rules committee, that's another issue.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods arrived at Augusta National Golf Club on Saturday morning and learned his score after 36 holes of the Masters would be two shots higher than he previously thought.

Woods made an illegal drop during the second round. This is inarguable. It's inarguable because Woods admitted during his post-round interviews Friday that he dropped the ball "2 yards further back" than the original divot made while hitting his third shot on the par-5 15th hole. You can't do that.

Except that Woods didn't realize he had done anything wrong. Nor did his playing partners. Nor, apparently, did the rules official assigned to the hole. Nor did the rules committee, which reviewed a TV viewer call-in and took a pass. Nor did any of us geniuses in the media.

"I wasn't even really thinking," said Woods of The Drop That Shook The Masters. "I was still a little ticked at what happened [his ball caromed off the pin and into a pond]. ... It's pretty obvious I didn't drop in the right spot."

Woods is many things, but he wouldn't take a crowbar to his Masters chances by intentionally violating the rules of golf (seemingly all 10 million of them). He obviously doesn't know all the rules, but nobody can really think he was purposely trying to pull a fast one on worldwide television -- and then brag about it in a post-round presser, right?

If the rules committee had told him to pack his golf bag Friday -- that he was disqualified for signing a wrong scorecard because he didn't assess himself a penalty for an illegal drop -- Woods would have done so. And done so without argument. He wouldn't have been happy about it, but remember what he said Friday when asked about the 1-shot penalty given to teenage Chinese amateur Tianlang Guan for slow play: "Well, rules are rules."

Woods broke a ball-drop rule -- or more correctly, he played from the wrong place after a ball-drop violation. Simple as that. Then the rules committee botched a review of the drop. Simple as that. Then Woods said what he said about the 2 yards.

And then nothing became simple.

My initial gut reaction: He should have been disqualified. If he wasn't DQ'd, he should have withdrawn from the tournament. After all, whether he realized it or not, Woods had broken a rule and had eventually signed an incorrect scorecard.

It would have been the noble thing for Woods to withdraw. I still believe that. But it wouldn't have been the practical -- or correct -- thing to do.

Woods screwed up, but the rules committee compounded the mistake by not doing its due diligence after the TV viewer called in to a rules official. Rather than review the situation with Woods immediately after the round (and before he signed his scorecard), the committee chose to make a decision before the completion of his round.

Sorry, what's the hurry?

Instead, Woods never heard a peep from the committee. He signed his card and told reporters that he did the 2-yard thing with his drop. But even that admission, played on national television, never quite made its way to members of the rules committee.

It wasn't until about 10 p.m. Friday that Fred Ridley, chairman of the competition committee, was made aware of Woods' post-round quote. And that was only after broadcast partner CBS made inquiries. And Woods didn't know something might be wrong until he checked his cell phone Saturday morning and saw a text from his agent, Mark Steinberg. It read: "Give me a shout." When he did, Steinberg told him, ominously, "Fred wants to talk to you."

So the rules committee screwed up, too, worse than Woods did. On Saturday, given the choice between describing the committee's initial decision as "a mistake" or "a review," Ridley chose the word review.

In review, it was a mistake. On Saturday, the committee tried to rectify the mistake in the only way it could, which was to impose a 2-shot penalty on Woods for playing the ball from the wrong place after the bad drop. In other words, a medium-security prison instead of golf's death row.

A 2-stroke penalty is no small thing. But it isn't a forced DQ. Woods still has a chance of winning the Masters -- as he should have after this series of almost comical mistakes.

Ridley and the rules committee aren't a bunch of boofs. They meant well. Woods isn't a golf cheater. He thought he was doing the right thing. But combined, the committee and Woods created a controversy that will be remembered here for a long time -- especially if he goes on to win.

He left Augusta National on Friday night at 3-under par. Not long after, he arrived early Saturday morning at 1-under, thanks to that penalty. Disqualification, said Ridley, "was not even on the table."

That's because the committee took a DQ out of play the nanosecond it ruled Friday that Woods had done no wrong. They couldn't take a mulligan Saturday.

"Under the rules of golf, I can play," said Woods.

So he did, and shot a 2-under-par 70, putting him 4 strokes out of the lead shared by Brandt Snedeker and Angel Cabrera. Woods would have been 2 strokes behind the leaders without the penalty -- not that he was complaining. Asked if it was a fair punishment, Woods said, "Absolutely. I made a mistake."

Anybody who thinks Augusta National cut Woods a break because he's Woods, well, you've been spending too much time on grassy knolls. This place did without corporate sponsorship on its telecasts for two years. It's not going to care if Woods is in the field.

"[If] this had been John Smith from wherever, then he would have gotten the same ruling because, again, it is the right ruling under these circumstances," said Ridley.

It was the right ruling after a wrong initial decision by the rules committee.

"There's not a day that goes by," said Ridley, "that there are not some things I wish I would have done differently."

Friday, for instance.