Commentary

Rules gaffe sends Tiger packing

Updated: January 18, 2013, 1:48 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Ultimately, this one is on Tiger. Golf is a singular, selfish, sometimes lonely game, with a book of never-ending head-scratching rules and devoid of officials to monitor the action.

Golfers police themselves, and Tiger Woods thought he was doing just that on Friday. He later learned that he had made a mistake, one that cost him 2 shots, and cruelly, a chance to play and win the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship over the weekend.

It was a shocking development, one never seen from Woods throughout his illustrious career. Sure, he's committed rules violations and taken the resulting penalties, as has every golfer who has ever played for pay.

But never had it cost him in this manner. Seemingly inside the 36-hole cut line after a back-nine flurry of birdies, Woods instead was headed home to Florida on Friday night after a disappointing start to the 2013 season that included the rare rules gaffe.

"I thought my ball was embedded," Woods said in brief comments after he signed for a 75 instead of a 73, those 2 strokes the difference between being here Saturday and going home. "Andy said that the ball wasn't embedded, because it was sandy-based."

Andy would be Andy McFee, the European Tour rules official who decided Woods had made a mistake by taking a drop from right of the fifth fairway at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Actually, Woods' ball was embedded; but because it was a sandy area that was part of some overgrown vegetation, Rule 25-2 that deals with embedded balls was not in play. Either Woods had to play it as it lay, or take an unplayable lie penalty, which would have cost him one stroke, not two.

But McFee wasn't there to see this with his own eyes. No rules officials were there, and Woods, knowing an embedded ball when he sees one, summoned another player in the group, Martin Kaymer, who agreed it was embedded. Woods took a drop, pitched out and made a bogey-5 on the hole.

McFee later said that rules officials were informed of the violation by "spectators," but one of them happened to be a working journalist, Alistair Tait of Golfweek magazine, who was following the Woods, Kaymer and Rory McIlroy group, as were thousands in attendance. Tait thought something was amiss and asked an official for clarification.

And that is why he has been catching some grief, but Tait simply sought clarification. In asking a rules official, that person had no choice but to investigate, as the various tours do whenever such a possible violation occurs.

"I thought he was taking an unplayable," Tait said later on Twitter. "Then heard he got relief and had to ask official. Didn't mean to open can of worms."

Fair enough, as there is a good chance somebody else in the massive crowd on what is the start of the weekend in the United Arab Emirates might very well have raised the same concern.

The issue of whether outsiders should be able to call rules infractions has long been a divisive one in golf. There have been numerous examples over the years of fans watching on television and calling in violations, and their complaints actually getting to the proper officials, who review them and assess penalties. Wouldn't you love to do that from your couch watching a football game?

It really becomes problematic when it occurs after the player has signed his card, because if the penalty is enforced, that player then faces disqualification.

Golf purists will argue that this is simply part of the game, that it protects the field because there are not rules officials watching every hole, every player, every stroke.

To which it can be very strongly argued: so what? If players are to police themselves, let them do so. It is the job of the players, caddies and officials walking with the group to watch out and "protect."

Granted, Kaymer wasn't doing a very good job of it, getting the rule wrong, too. As would have been the case with McIlroy if he were asked.

"I know he called Martin over," McIlroy said afterward. "It was an embedded ball, but through the green doesn't mean sand -- I wouldn't have known that either."

So all three of them got it wrong.

And what about the fairness of such armchair observations? Woods' rounds are watched by millions on television and thousands of spectators in person. Many players potentially can commit violations while are not on TV, playing golf among the crickets. That is hardly a level playing field.

What is hard to fathom, however, is why Woods did not summon an official. If you watch the replay, you will see his ball came to rest in a path of overgrown vegetation. Even a weekend hacker who attempts to play by the rules might think it dubious to expect a drop from such a place.

But Woods' ball was embedded in the ground. The problem is, while he thought it was ground, it was actually sand -- a big distinction.

"Under the rules of the game, the embedded ball only applies on a closely mown area," McFee said. "But all tours use the note to that rule, which extends it to through the green, which means everywhere on the golf course except hazards.

"But it's a very specific rule, that rule, and it refers to ground other than sand.

"Now unfortunately, this area, whilst it's got vegetation on the top of it, it's just creeping vegetation and sand, as most is of the off-grass areas here. Once we had found out what had gone on, we investigated it. & I realize there was a potential problem here, so I spoke to Tiger as he came off the 11th tee, because I was aware of his position in the golf tournament."

And that was precarious. Woods was having a rough day and was outside the cutline. A 2-stroke penalty would mean even more ground to make up, but Woods simply said they'd discuss it after the round. At this point, he clearly had to know there was a possibility 2 strokes would be added, but didn't address it afterward. He made three late birdies that would have ensured he made the cut had he taken the unplayable penalty.

Coincidentally, earlier in the week Woods told the story of how he got disqualified from a junior event because when he called in for his tee time, he only said his last name. There happened to be another Woods in the field, and Tiger was given the wrong time. Woods showed up late and was disqualified.

"That is the only time I have ever been in a situation like that," Woods said Tuesday. "And I vowed it would never happen again, because that was a pretty empty feeling knowing that all I had to do was give a little bit more detail, my first name ... it cost me a chance of winning a golf tournament, and that's a pretty empty feeling."

You wonder if Woods felt the same emptiness on the long journey through nine time zones back to Florida?

Had he summoned a rules official -- which occurs all the time -- he could have taken an unplayable lie or simply tried to play the shot. In either case, it's hard to envision Woods scoring higher than 6. He instead got a 7 on the hole, and that one stroke cost him the cut.

Golf can be cruel that way.

But like most things in golf, Tiger has only himself to blame.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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