By In Stuff

The Choice of Tiger Woods

Sports lets us fill that all-too-human urge to tell people what they should do. We can tell the manager that he should have pulled the starter, the college star that he should not turn pro, the quarterback that he should have thrown the ball away. It is part of the fun of being a fan.

In that vein, many people have spent the last day or so telling Tiger Woods that he should (or should not) have disqualified himself from the Masters. Woods, on the 15th hole on Friday, hit a brilliant approach shot that turned out to be too brilliant — the ball hit the flagstick and spun back into the water. It was one of those dreadful injustices that make golf an often disheartening game, and Woods weighed his options. The option he settled on was to take a penalty stroke and “play a ball as nearly as possible at the spot where the original ball was last played.”

Only, he did not exactly do that. He played the ball maybe three or four feet behind the ball, perhaps confusing this rule with another one. What followed was slightly confusing, but here’s the official version: Golf being golf, some rule stickler watching on TV called in to say it was an illegal drop. Golf officials then reviewed the drop and determined that while the drop may not have met the technical word-for-word standard it was within the spirit of the rule. In other words, they ruled it was close enough.

But after the round, Woods talked about the drop — and he made it clear that he unknowingly and purposely broke the spirit of the rule too. He said he dropped the ball a couple of yards behind the original drop because it gave him a better chance to hit a good shot (he hit it stiff and made his bogey).

Now, if we are to believe the timeline, those golf officials were in a bind. They had looked at the drop and ruled it legal. But after Woods comments, they knew it was an illegal drop — Woods had not played the ball as nearly as possible to the original ball.

They also knew that if it was an illegal drop, that meant Woods had signed an illegal scorecard — he had signed for a score lower than he actually shot — and an illegal scorecard means automatic disqualification. There was a lot of consternation over what would be done, with many people thinking Woods HAD to be disqualified and many others thinking that disqualifying Woods over such a minor point would be ludicrous.

Golf officials split the baby, they used the wide leeway of rule 33 (sort of a “in the best interest of golf” rule) and gave Woods a two-stroke penalty but did not disqualify him.

This is one of those nanoscale legal decisions that some golf fans will discuss like Talmudic scholars and others will find utterly ridiculous and pointless. I lean more to the latter, I guess. I still think it’s absolutely ridiculous that Roberto Di Vicenzo was not given a chance to play in a 1968 Masters playoff because he unwittingly signed a scorecard that credited him shooting one shot worse than he actually shot (his playing partner, Tommy Aaron, had made the mistake and De Vicenzo won fans all over the world by not blaming Aaron and instead saying “What a stupid I am!”).

What I find interesting here is not the rule or the ruling, but the opportunity the committee gave to Tiger Woods. At first glance, it seems like they just gave him the opportunity to continue in the Masters without any guilt at all. He could always say, “Hey, they penalized me … I’m just following the rules.”

But I would argue they gave him a hidden opportunity. They gave Tiger Woods the opportunity to disqualify himself, if he wanted to do that.

At first blush, the first option — staying in the Masters — seems the easy choice. Even with the two-stroke penalty, Woods is in contention. Woods trails Jack Nicklaus by four major championships in his chase of greatest player ever, and he has to know that time runs short. Every major championship counts.

But with this, Woods also knows that if he somehow does win, many will view the victory as tainted. Maybe he doesn’t care about that, maybe he shouldn’t, but it’s there.

But let’s look at the withdrawal option. There are advantages to withdrawing too. Woods is clearly trying to put on a better public face. It’s obvious. He is much more pleasant in interviews, much less hostile on the golf course. He lapses now and again — old habits die hard — but he’s clearly trying to clean it up and represent himself and the game better. If he had withdrawn from the Masters, and simply said: “I unwittingly broke one of the rules of golf. I did not mean to do it, but I did and the game is bigger than any one golfer” — it would have forced his critics and cynics to look at him in a different way.

He chose to stay and play, and it fits his profile. Tiger Woods is about winning. Winning has forged him, driven his ambition. pushed him to towering heights and a few nasty lows.

I do wonder if he ever gave consideration to withdrawing. I’m not saying he should have withdrawn. This is what I mean about that human urge to tell people what to do. The point to me isn’t what anyone else thinks he should have done. The point is what he DID do.

But I find myself wondering if he considered withdrawing. He’s a longshot to win the Masters today. He has never come from behind to win a major championship, and this will be a particularly difficult comeback. He’s four shots behind not one but two excellent golfers, one a former Masters champion (Angel Cabrera) and the other one of the ten best players in the world (Brandt Snedeker). There are other terrific golfers like Jason Day, Matt Kuchar and Adam Scott between him and the prize. It will be a tough comeback, to say the least.

And if he doesn’t win, well, I wonder if he would ever look back and have a tiny regret. It has been almost 90 years since Bobby Jones called a penalty on himself that may have cost him the 1925 U.S. Open — and golf fans still remember it. More than 40 years have gone by since Jack Nicklaus conceded the putt to Tony Jacklin to allow Great Britain to halve the 1969 Ryder Cup. People remember that too. Woods was given a great gift Saturday — the gift to either stay and play or to be remembered for something larger than golf. He chose to stay and try to win the Masters.

18 Responses to The Choice of Tiger Woods

  1. Zac Schmitt says:

    Is there another sport where this would have been an issue? I feel like if a baseball or football player had admitted to breaking a rule – “Yeah, I committed pass interference there, but the refs missed it and the other team turned the ball over on downs,” or “My pitch was almost certainly a ball, but the ump called it a strike,” would MLB or NFL even think about reversing the game, replaying the game, or anything else? In my mind, once an official makes a ruling, that’s it. Unless it’s eligible for official review, the call has been made, for better or worse.

    • Chris says:

      Happens in baseball on occasion. Exhibit A: Pine Tar game.

    • John C. says:

      The pine tar game is an example of the last sentence only, not of the basic point of his comment. It didn’t involve a player challenging the umpire’s favorable ruling. As an aside, given Brett’s (ahem) reaction to the call, it’s kind of funny to see the incident mentioned in this discussion.

      The Pine Tar game is a response to the last sentance of his comment about the call being made, for better or worse. And even in that game, going by the rulebook, the umpire’s call was quite easily defenseable. 30 years later I’m still mystified about that reversal (I think one other protest has been allowed in the last 40+ years), and have to wonder if the fact that Billy Martin was generally despised played a role in the decision.

  2. shaggy says:

    Great story legend on Augusta National, in woolier times. A surging Spaniard. Intentional crowd interruption in back swing. Into the water. Nicklaus last major. A graceful Spaniard.

    Simply the way the ball bounces.

  3. Kansas City says:

    I agree with Joe. Would have been a very smart move for Tiger to disqualify himself. But he likely was blinded by ambition, and who in his enterouge is going to tell him to DQ himself?

    Link is to a conspiracy theory, that Tiger “confessed” to establish the basis to say the rule violation was unintentional and the Masters could let him keep playing. I doubt it.

  4. Martin F. says:

    It would have been silly to DQ himself, and Joe you do a disservice to the actual rule used and gloss over the reality of the situation.

    Tiger made a drop. One drop rule says you can do it anywhere along the line where it exited play, even dropping farther back, where as the other says you must drop it in the area as close to the original spot as they can. The reason the 2nd rule is worded that way is that sometimes it’s not all that easy to drop the ball within a foot, so there is some leeway.

    The officials told Tiger at 18 before he signed his scorecard that it was not a penalty, thus he DID NOT sign an incorrect scorecard. later they ruled that yes it was a penalty, but a rule put in place before this year clearly states that in almost this EXACT situation where a penalty is given after an incorrect ruling, the 2 shot penalty is made instead of a DQ. They don’t DQ someone for signing a scorecard they were told was correct when they signed it, otherwise get rid of the officials and marshall’s all together. If they had told Tiger it was a penalty, he would have adjusted his scorecard before he signed it, thus making all this hand wringing and baby cutting and hair splitting moot.

    Also, it’s time for golf to get rid of the whole TV viewer calling in routine. Simplify the drop/hazard/and terrain rules and have an official who can make on the spot rulings which are not reviewable accompany each group.

    • Rom's Blog says:

      The officials did NOT talk to Tiger at 18. They conferred and decided that he did not commit an infraction but they did not inform him either way or that there was even an issue. Tiger signed the card and was not aware of any issues until the next morning.

    • Rom's Blog says:

      The officials did NOT talk to Tiger at 18. They conferred and decided that he did not commit an infraction but they did not inform him either way or that there was even an issue. Tiger signed the card and was not aware of any issues until the next morning.

  5. invitro says:

    Not just golf, but baseball, basketball, and all of our sports would be vastly improved if the commissioners would allow the rules to be improved upon to make these silly (and often tragic) situations much less likely. It will happen someday, but society is not yet squarely in favor of reason and fair play.

  6. mickey says:

    For all his faults, Woods is about competing on the golf course, so of course he opted for playing. Because of the soulless, corporate PR machine that surrounds and isolates him, observers may be led to believe that Woods himself is savvy about PR. I think the last few years have shown that to be untrue. He lets the PR machinery make decisions for him precisely because on his own, his tunnel vision to be the best in golf has made him an unlikable automaton the rest of the time. But if you give him a choice between proving himself on the golf course and forgoing two rounds to achieve some nebulous (and not guaranteed to be successful) PR goal, he’s going to tee up his ball every time.
    As for the rules themselves, they are among the reasons I’m in the George Carlin camp when it comes to golf.

    • David says:

      The game they’re playing is golf. For better or worse, gentlemanly observance to byzantine rules is an intrinsic part of the sport … and that actually makes sense when you consider the challenges of policing a few individuals scattered over a 6,000 yard landscape, with or without cameras everywhere.

  7. I don’t know, Joe, I see your point. But in the TV age the DQ rule for signing an incorrect scorecard is a relic; the scorecard ruling was already a relic when it was applied to DiVicenzo. Rule 33 is a step in the right direction.

    I like to think that Jack gave the putt to Jacklin because it was the honorable thing to do, not to improve his PR. (Actually, according to some participants, at least part of the story was that Jack did it to piss off captain Sam Snead.)

    In my view, the only reason for Tiger to withdraw would have been as a PR move, i.e., to change his image. This is not really a matter of honor or of seeing the larger picture.

  8. Mark Daniel says:

    Woods is being held to an impossibly high standards. The comparisons with Jones and Nicklaus are not appropriate either. Jones gave himself a 1 stroke penalty when otherwise there would not have been a penalty. Nicklaus never conceded any putts in the Masters, or any other regular tournament for that matter.
    Woods was assessed a 2 stroke penalty, and on top of that you would have liked to have seen him withdraw from the tournament. I heard some radio guys yesterday talking about the thumbs-up Angel Cabrera gave Adam Scott, and they said, “Tiger Woods would NEVER have done that.”
    It seems to me that we are now making stuff up to criticize Tiger over.

    • Scott says:

      I don’t think people are making things up to punish Tiger over. There have been whispers for years that he is the most unpleasant and offensive individual associated with the PGA tour. I think between Rick Reilly’s recent column blasting him and his open admission that he tried to game the drop at the Masters for a competitive advantage people just feel more comfortable talking honestly about him in public forums.

  9. goldglove51 says:

    Woods is being held to no different standards than any other PGA tour player. And no one needs to make anything up to criticize Woods over; he has done quite well doing that on his own.

  10. goldglove51 says:

    Woods is being held to no different standards than any other PGA tour player. And no one needs to make anything up to criticize Woods over; he has done quite well doing that on his own.

  11. brhalbleib says:

    Meh, the world has changed in the last 30 years. I don’t think the modern player is going to show the same “sportsmanship” as yesteryear. It just isn’t the way the world is.

    Case in point: In 1940 Cornell got an extra (5th) down to score a TD to beat Dartmouth 7-3. After the game it was discovered that an extra down had been given and Cornell’s coach, AD and President telegramed Dartmouth offering to forfeit the win (which was accepted. And before you think this was an unimportant Ivy League game, Cornell had an 18 game winning streak and was going for its 2nd straight national championship. In 1990, 50 years later, Colorado beat Mizzou on a last second 5th down play and no one seriously suggested that they forfeit the game (outside of Columbia, at least). Of course, CU went on to win the rest of their games that season and share the national championship Different times, different sensabilities. Same thing with golfers from the 1920s or 1960s and today.

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