AUGUSTA, Ga. — A ball had not yet been struck at Augusta National Golf Club on Saturday morning, but drama and controversy had already suffocated the 77th Masters, with a ruling issued against Tiger Woods that saved him from disqualification.
Instead of being disqualified, Woods was handed a two-stroke penalty over an improper drop he took during Friday’s second round, turning his 71 into a 73 and leaving him five shots back after 36 holes, instead of three. But golf’s top-ranked player was spared the harsher punishment from tournament officials, who referred to a rule implemented two years ago by golf’s governing bodies that waives disqualification under “exceptional individual cases.”
On Friday, Woods’s third shot to the 15th hole hit the flagstick on the fly, then bounced on the green, rolled down the hill, and trickled into the pond fronting the putting surface. Woods took a penalty drop and finished the hole, making what he thought was a bogey 6.
But in a televised interview, Woods acknowledged that he purposely took his drop 2 yards behind where he had originally played. If accurate — video replay shows Woods playing from several feet behind his original spot — that would be a violation, and because it wasn’t added to his score, Woods had signed an incorrect scorecard, which almost always results in disqualification.
Unknown to Woods, a television viewer called a Masters rules official on Friday and passed along the possible infraction, a phone call that ultimately helped Woods. That’s because the call allowed tournament officials to review the video while Woods was still on the course, which they did, and they determined that no rule had been broken. They did not inform Woods after his round of that decision, and, curiously, had no discussion with him about the matter. Woods signed his scorecard.
It was only after Woods’s TV interview that tournament officials opted to look again. After another review Friday night, and following a meeting with Woods on Saturday morning, the rules committee determined that Woods’s drop had been improper, and he thus played his fifth shot from the wrong position, which calls for a two-shot penalty.
The US Golf Association and R&A revised the disqualification rule in August 2011. It allows for officials to enforce a stroke penalty, even after a scorecard has been signed, if a player unknowingly committed the violation, then is made aware of it at a later time.
In this case, not only did Woods believe that no violation had taken place, but rules officials initially cleared him while he was still playing and before he signed his scorecard, when they could have taken action. Because of that, when the breach was finally confirmed on Saturday, officials chose to enforce the 2011 USGA rule, which was implemented to protect players from disqualification. So Woods was given a two-shot penalty instead.
“To me, it would have been grossly unfair to Tiger to have disqualified him after our committee had made that [initial] decision . . . while he was still playing the 18th hole,” said Fred Ridley, chairman of the Masters competition committee. “Disqualification [Saturday] morning was not even on the table.”
Needless to say, a very confusing situation involving one of golf’s many rules quickly became the tournament’s biggest story, with reactions spanning the spectrum: Some saying the correct decision had been made, others arguing that Woods, even if he wasn’t aware of the violation, should do the right thing by withdrawing or disqualifying himself.
Woods chose not to do that, and shot a 70 in the third round to reach 3 under, four shots behind leaders Brandt Snedeker and Angel Cabrera.
“Under the rules of golf I can play,” Woods said after his third round. “If it was done a year or two ago, whatever, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play. But the rules of golf have changed, and under the rules of golf I was able to play.”
It was the second straight day that a rules issue had dominated the Masters. On Friday, 14-year-old Chinese amateur Tianlang Guan was given a one-stroke penalty for slow play. He was the only player penalized, even though some rounds exceeded 5½ hours.
After his second round, when Woods was asked about the penalty given to Guan, he said, “Rules are rules.” Asked on Saturday about Woods’s situation, Guan replied, “Rules are rules.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.