It was a tragic shot, a perfectly launched 70-yard pitch that nearly landed in the cup for an eagle on the par-5 15th hole at Augusta National but instead bounced off the flagstick and into the water hazard that fronts the green. Tiger Woods looked away in disgust, his chances of a fifth Masters green jacket dimmed by golf’s cruelty on a course where he has more often crafted some of the game’s sweetest magic.
The moment in the second round Friday could have rattled lesser players—not so the world’s best. Woods took his drop and fired a second pitch to within feet of the cup. He saved bogey—or so he thought. A television viewer called the rules committee to suggest Woods had not dropped his ball in the proper location and deserved a two-stroke penalty. One of the strangest sagas in Masters Tournament history ensued.
First, the committee reviewed the tape, determined Woods had done nothing improper, and took no action. Soon thereafter, Woods completed his round and signed his scorecard, taking a bogey on 15. Then he did a television interview in which he indicated he had dropped his ball a couple yards farther from the hole than the location of his original shot. That sound bite prompted the committee to take at second look at the tape. By Saturday morning, prior to Woods third round starting time, the committee was convinced Woods had taken an improper drop, deserved a two-stroke penalty, and therefore signed an incorrect scorecard. In a game governed by self-policing, the signing of an incorrect scorecard historically has merited an automatic disqualification. But a recent rule addition allows players to avoid disqualification if they could “not reasonably have known” to be signing an incorrect card.
The rules committee informed Woods early Saturday he would be assessed the penalty, dropping him five strokes instead of three behind the leader. The 14-time major tournament winner took his lumps without complaint or excuse and fought his way to a fourth-place finish. His conduct throughout the ordeal was exemplary, a picture of integrity and grit. He demonstrated mettle worthy of the world’s No. 1 ranking that he presently holds.
But to hear his critics tell it, Woods played the villain. Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Dwyre accused Woods of a failure in judgment for not voluntarily disqualifying himself. Cameron Morfit, a senior writer for Golf Magazine, chastised Woods for doing wrong in continuing to play. And CBS commentator Nick Faldo, himself a three-time Masters champion, said Woods failure to “do the manly thing” and withdraw would leave a mark on his legacy.
Faldo later said he had changed his mind, a move perhaps motivated by pleas from CBS executives to spare the broadcast from Faldo’s sermonizing. By Sunday, the television commentators seemed determined to make no mention of the controversy whatsoever. At one point, Faldo suggested lamely that Woods falling short of victory stemmed simply from several other players proving to be better over four days on golf’s grandest stage. In truth, Woods’ rally to remain competitive after so cruel a disaster proved his preeminence in the game yet again. And the not-so-subtle moralizing of his critics smacked more of old-fashioned coveting than any defense of integrity.