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Members of the rules committee leave an administration building (Darron Cummings/AP)
Members of the rules committee leave an administration building (Darron Cummings/AP)

Rubenstein: Not a good day for golf Add to ...

Augusta, Ga. – Tiger Woods ripped his drive off the first tee down the left centre of the fairway to start his third round today. The hole was cut in the far left of the green, so he had an ideal angle in. Perfect. Woods heard nothing but support and encouragement and “Go Tiger” from the thousands watching. He hit his second shot right at the hole, and it nearly went in for eagle. He made the two-footer for an opening birdie. Perfect.

But what was far from perfect and what has cast a pall over this third round and the Masters itself is the way the rules officials and Woods himself have handed his illegal drop on the par-five 15th hole in the second round. Here’s my take on it from this morning. No need to repeat here, only to elaborate.

Competition committee chairman Fred Ridley said in a news conference Saturday that the decision to penalize Woods two shots was made after he was called in for a chat this morning. The committee had heard on Friday from a viewer watching on television who felt Woods had dropped his ball illegally, that is, not “as nearly as possible as possible at the spot from which the ball was last played.”

The committee examined the video of the situation while Woods was playing the 18th hole. The committee felt Woods had dropped the ball properly and decided not to penalize him. Then it learned that Woods said in an interview after his round that he had dropped his ball where he did to confer an advantage to him; he did think he was proceeding within the rules. Still, Woods did not drop the ball on the spot or very near. Woods’ intent concerned the committee.

A rule was introduced two years ago that allows the rules committee at a tournament not to disqualify a player if a viewer calls in an infraction that checks out. This happens regularly in the era of HD television. A viewer sees something that the player could not have seen, and calls in. That can happen, for example, when a ball moves ever so slightly, or his club touches a fixed piece of grass or a wispy branch in his backswing.

But it appears absurd to use the viewer-related rule. The distance Woods dropped the ball from where he hit the original shot that bounced off the flagstick and into water would have been apparent on a black-and-white television of the 1950s with rabbit ears. It beggars belief that Ridley and his associates would have concluded that Woods dropped the ball properly.

But they did. Meanwhile, why had they not waited for Woods to finish his second round, which was imminent, and call him in for discussion? Evidently, they felt there was no reason to do that. They made their decision–no decision at all, really, because they perceived no violation. Woods signed his scorecard for a bogey on the 15th hole.

Then they want everybody to believe that it was Woods’ comment in his post-round interview, which they learned about after 10 PM Friday night, and which caused them pause. According to Ridley, Woods told them that “he was trying to create a situation where he would effectively have a shot that was not going to go quite as far as his first shot did.”

Woods’s statement told the committee that he had dropped his ball beyond the acceptable area, something, again, that should have been apparent to the committee on its first viewing of the video. The committee told Woods he would be penalized two shots for violating the drop rule, 26-1 (a).

Still, Woods had signed a scorecard that was incorrect. The application of the new rule that was instituted two years ago then saved him. Golf proceeded for centuries under the premise that once a player signs his card, he must accept the score. A player is responsible for his score on each hole, although not for the total. The player is signing off on each hole.

If he signs for a score on a hole higher than he made, he must accept that score, and the higher total. If he signs for a score on a hole lower than he made, he must therefore also accept the lower total as the final result. Signing for a lower score compels disqualification. Signing one’s scorecard is an almost sacred ritual in golf. Woods, of course, believed he was signing for the correct score on each hole in his second round.

Famously, Roberto de Vicenzo signed for a four on the 17th hole the last day of the 1968 Masters when he had birdied the hole and made three. He had to accept a 66 rather than the 65 strokes he took. The further result was that the extra shot meant he finished second instead of being in a playoff with Bob Goalby.

Woods signed for a score lower than he made on the 15th hole. The committee used the new television rule to allow him to continue, with the two-shot penalty for an illegal drop. The committee put him in a tough spot by invoking and stretching a rule that shouldn’t apply here, rather than disqualifying him. It was then left to Woods to continue to try to win his fifth Master and 15th major, or to withdraw before his round.

He chose to continue. He had that right, given the committee’s decision. But in the long run he might regret his decision not to withdraw. Woods did not drop properly and he signed an incorrect scorecard that called for his disqualification.

Should Woods overcome the five-shot deficit with which he started the third round, the victory, while showing his ability to focus, will be forever tainted. Whatever happens, the game itself, and the authority that the Augusta National Golf Club, its Masters rules people, and the judgment of officials on site from the USGA and the R&A, is also tainted.

This has not been a good day for golf, no matter how gleaming Augusta National looks on television screens around the world, and no matter what transpires over the last two rounds.

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