Rules shouldn’t be bent to facilitate Woods

The World number one took an illegal drop and deserved to be disqualified

Sun, Apr 14, 2013, 21:48

The rules of golf, for all their complexity of language, are, for the most part, surprisingly uncomplicated. Black and white in clarity; mostly! Occasionally, the high definition becomes a little fuzzy and someone ventures into a grey area. Tiger Woods, through a level of ignorance of the rules that is quite incomprehensible given his status as the game’s iconic figure, walked into such terrain and into the mire with his illegal drop at Augusta National.

If the “rules are the rules,” as players like to quote, then – on the letter of the law – Woods, regardless of his status as a 14-time Major champion, should have walked – a DQ should have been affixed, like an asterisk, to his 2013 Masters.

It should have served as a salutary lesson to everyone who plays the game, where the principle of self-regulation and honour is, or should be, absolute. Nobody should be above the rules.

Only, on this occasion, Woods got away with it. Why? Because his mistake, albeit seen to be a clear breach of the rules, was compounded by further failures to impose the appropriate sanction at the right time: the accumulation of errors began with rules officials not asking Woods to explain his drop on the 15th fairway on Friday before he signed his card.

The end result, whereby the newly introduced rule 33 was used to retrospectively give him a two-shot penalty, was one that smacked, if not of a cop-out, at least of seeming to uphold the integrity of the game.

There may have been a sense that the punishment exceeded the misdemeanour, but Woods – in admitting to dropping two yards behind the original spot – was the primary witness in his own conviction. He admitted to playing from the wrong place, and, as such, admitted to breaking the rule.

Players who sign an incorrect scorecard traditionally are disqualified. End of story! Or it should have been.

Large extent
Woods was saved by the rather generous interpretation of Rule 33-7/4 which was brought into the rule book to a large extent after an incident involving Pádraig Harrington in Abu Dhabi in January 2011.

Unbeknownst to him, his ball moved as he replaced the marker on the green and the action could only be substantiated by slow motion television replays.

Harrington wasn’t aware he had transgressed any rule, signed his scorecard without penalty . . . and was disqualified post the event for signing for an incorrect score. Hence, the advent of the new rule to save those violators where there was no clear intent to take advantage.

However, that rule can only to be used by committees in “exceptional individual circumstances” and the looseness of that terminology was used to keep Woods in the tournament.

Such a rule was not drafted to aid a player who was ignorant of the rules, which is the position Woods – not for the first time – found himself in last Friday with his incorrect drop.

Of course the matter should have been dealt with before he signed his card. Of course Woods should have been made aware of the possibility of sanction, rather than officials deeming that he hadn’t broken any rule.

In effect, Woods’s honesty in his post-round television interview only served to prove his ignorance of Rule 26, the relevant rule which deals with water hazards; and, in voicing his explanation of how he had added an extra two yards on to the place from where the original shot was hit, he struck the nail into his own coffin.

But he was given a lifeline by the decision to stretch the interpretation of the law and retrospectively impose a two-shot penalty a day late rather than to disqualify him.

Continue playing
And once that decision was made to give him a two-shot penalty, Woods was correct in pointing out the rules of golf allowed him to continue playing. On this occasion, there was no ignorance of the rulebook.

Woods isn’t the first player to be the beneficiary of a ruling that seems to run against the rulebook. Arnold Palmer won his first Masters in 1958 after a favourable ruling when his ball became embedded behind the 12th green in the final round, and Dow Finterswald was retrospectively given a two-shot penalty (a day late) for taking a practice putt on the green during play in the 1960 tournament.

So, the precedent is there. The difference this time is that Woods’s illegal drop, if not immediately picked up on by rules officials, was one of ignorance of the rules and, for that, there should be no safety net.

But Woods was given that safety net, a green light to continue. And once the tournament committee gave him that go-ahead, the player was right to continue playing. It wasn't then up to him to disqualify himself. It was too late.