DropGate — Did Golf Drop a Shot at Augusta Today?

The golf blogosphere has been abuzz today in the wake of the Tiger Woods ruling at The Masters.  Woods admitted this morning that he unknowingly took an improper drop on the 15th hole in Friday’s 2nd round, after an approach shot he’d hit struck the flagstick and bounded into a water hazard.  The Masters Competition Committee admitted that they reviewed the evidence on videotape before Woods completed his round — after a viewer had called in to question the legality of the drop — and determined that Woods had complied with the rules.  But today, in a process surrounded with as much mystery and intrigue as the naming of a new Pope, the Committee reversed its decision, saying:

“The subsequent information provided by the player’s interview after he had completed play warranted further review and discussion with him this morning.  After meeting with the player, it was determined that he had violated Rule 26, and he was assessed a two-stoke penalty.  The penalty of disqualification was waived by the Committee under Rule 33 as the Committee had previously reviewed the information and made its initial determination prior to the finish of the player’s round.”

In the minutes and hours since the committee issued its second (and presumably final) ruling, golf fans and golf writers around the globe have variously accused Woods, the Augusta National Competition Committee, its Chairman Fred Ridley, and even the USGA (who provides ruling assistance at the tournament) of acting in a way that’s detrimental to the game.

“It’s a sad day for golf,” one commenter said.

“Golf used to be the only sport based on honor,” said another.  “Not anymore.”

“If Tiger has any integrity, he will withdraw,” another person weighed in — and he had a lot of company in this sentiment.  The thinking is that Tiger knew (or should have known) that he had taken an illegal drop.  So in their view, he knowingly signed an incorrect scorecard and therefore should have been disqualified.  The fact that he ultimately wasn’t — and that he didn’t voluntarily withdraw or get disqualified — has made some people angry at both Tiger and the Competition Committee.

But it shouldn’t have.

The fact is, the Committee reviewed the evidence on Friday and decided there was no violation.  This COULD have been the end of it, regardless of what Joe The Couch Potato Rules Expert or anyone else feels.  The Committee made the call, Tiger signed his card, and that was that.  Had they seen a clear violation, they could have (and should have and probably would have) questioned Woods about it, giving both parties the chance before he signed his card to ascertain the true facts.  But in the Committee’s judgment, it wasn’t necessary.  Woods’ drop was close enough.  So Woods signed his card and that would have been all there was to it — if Tiger hadn’t subsequently been so “honest” about the nature of the drop he took.

In his post-round press conference, Woods said that he had dropped his ball “two yards” from the original spot where he’d played his third shot on the hole — the one so well aimed that it hit the flagstick and then caromed into the water.  Suddenly, the Committee had some new evidence to consider.  While they may have initially felt, based on video evidence, that Woods had taken a proper drop, here was first-hand testimony from the player himself that it was indeed Woods’ intention to drop some little ways away from the point where he’d played his third shot.  He had in fact NOT dropped his ball “as close as possible” to the point from which he played his unlucky pin-striking 3rd shot.

What’s the Competition Committee to do?

In my view, they did exactly the right thing — they interviewed Woods, reexamined the evidence, and modified their ruling.  They issued a two-stroke penalty to Woods for breaking the rule, but did NOT disqualify him from the tournament because they had NOT given him a chance to address the issue BEFORE he signed his card, as is common in such situations.  Rule 33 was instituted in 2010 precisely for these kinds of situations.

Woods took the penalty like a man, and the event went on.  So did the furor.

“He should have DQ’ed himself,” was the cry on Facebook posts and blogs across the world.

“Tiger and Augusta National have given golf a black eye.”

I don’t agree.

Golf is a unique sport, in that players routinely call penalties on themselves.  And unlike other sports, where final rulings are final (or immediately challenged and reviewed), in golf there is a way to right a wrong in a way that’s fair to the player, the field and the integrity of the game.

That’s why I think the Masters Competition Committee did exactly what they should have done.  They didn’t stubbornly stand by their initial ruling.  They reopened the investigation in light of new evidence.  They assessed a penalty that needed to be assessed.  Then they rightfully and fairly permitted the player to tee it up for round three, with a score two strokes higher.  To have disqualified Woods would have been unfair because he had not been questioned on the legality of the drop prior to signing his card — something for which there is plenty of precedent.  Dustin Johnson’s problem on the 18th hole of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straights in 2010 is just one example.  Johnson unknowingly grounded his club in a bunker and before he could sign his card was informed that he’d broken a rule.  In yesterday’s case, Woods wasn’t questioned about it at all.

Should Woods have withdrawn anyway?  Why?  To protect the integrity of the game?  To show the world what an honest man he is?  Sorry, but I don’t agree with that line of thinking.  A player is bound to play by the rules — and accept the decisions of rules committees.  In this case, the Committee made a ruling based on Rule 33.  Woods accepted it.  For him to withdraw would have been tantamount to doing what many have accused him of — putting himself above the game.  And without question, it wouldn’t have been fair to Woods.  Unless he’s disqualified for cause, every player deserves the opportunity to play — and indeed has an obligation to fans (“patrons”) and the tournament to play.

Are there lessons to be learned from this episode?  For sure.  Lesson Number One is that Competition Committees and rules officials need to try to do a better job of examining questionable situations BEFORE a player signs his card.  Had they done so in this case, Woods’ drop wouldn’t have led to such controversy.  Lesson Two is that players, including Woods, need to be more familiar with the rules — or at least be wise enough to ask for an on-course ruling before proceeding to the trailer to sign their cards.

In the end, I think this episode did the opposite of what many critics have said today.  To me, it proved that justice does prevail in golf.  The field was protected.  A Committee admitted its mistake and corrected it.  And a player accepted the punishment with grace.

How is any of that bad for golf?


One Response to “DropGate — Did Golf Drop a Shot at Augusta Today?”

  1. Steve Fritsch

    “Lesson Two is that players, including Woods, need to be more familiar with the rules.”
    Really? You really believe Tiger Woods, and his caddy, are not familiar with this rule? Perhaps the most exercised rule in the game.
    It is clear to .me he intentionally violated the drop rule, signed his card, knowing it was bogus and turned it in! That sir, is a DQ. Period.


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