Tiger and the Drop: An Inside Look at Golf's Most Controversial Pardon
The 2013 Masters was supposed to be a return to glory for Tiger Woods. Four weeks earlier he had reassumed his spot atop the World Ranking, a significant milestone on the long journey back to dominance. Woods had rebuilt his life and golf game since his fall from grace in 2009; a win at the Masters would complete the journey. Few athletes have as much freighted history with a venue as Woods does with Augusta National. It is where his legend was born with a record win in 1997. Three more victories would follow over the next eight years.
Augusta National is where Woods chose to return to public life after his sex scandal, but his relationship with the club was complicated by the public scolding he received from its chairman, Billy Payne. From the bully pulpit of his press conference before the 2010 Masters, Payne had said, "We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here tomorrow in a positive, hopeful and constructive manner, but this time, with a significant difference from the past. This year, it will not be just for him, but for all of us who believe in second chances."
It was Augusta National's insular culture and Woods's singular presence that ultimately led to the most controversial second chance in golf history.
Woods opened the 77th Masters with a two-under 70, good for 13th place. His Friday tee time was at 1:41 p.m., the second-to-last on a day that was marred by an incident involving Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old phenom from China who had earned an invitation by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. After a remarkable opening 73, the short-hitting Guan was fighting to make the cut when, on the 17th hole, he was assessed a one-stroke penalty for slow play. The glacial pace at the Masters has been a scourge for decades, but Guan's was the first such penalty in tournament history. "I'm sick for him," said two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, one of Guan's playing partners. Derek Lawrenson of The Daily Mail made explicit the issue of selective justice, noting that Woods's group "took nearly four hours to play the first 11 holes, without any penalty."
The Guan debate highlighted the tournament's idiosyncratic rules infrastructure. The Masters rules committee consists of 40 officials who are cherry-picked from ruling bodies and golf organizations worldwide. They fall under the domain of the powerful three-man competition committee, which is chaired by Augusta National member Fred Ridley. However, the vast majority of rules officials are not members and thus, unlike Ridley, not beholden to the club. And even though it has by far the smallest field of the four majors, the Masters is the only one that does not assign a walking rules official to every group. Guan had been dinged by a roving official—John Paramor, an officious Englishman who is the chief referee for the European tour. Payne and Ridley were mute about Guan's penalty, so it was left to Paramor to explain his ruling. In his rich baritone, he presented the rules as black-and-white. "How do I feel about it?" Paramor said. "I feel the same in all these situations. It is my job. It is what I do."
Asked on Friday night for his reaction to the Guan penalty, Woods offered an unforgiving analysis: "Well, rules are rules."
Starting nearly five hours after Guan, Woods sent a charge through Augusta National with birdies on the 5th, 7th and 8th holes. As he played deeper into a golden early evening, the stage seemed to be his alone. Arriving on the 15th tee, Woods held a share of the lead and was the only player in the field without a bogey on a day when the wind was gusting. He sliced his drive on the par-5 into the trees and then punched out down the right side, giving himself a good angle to a flag cut on the front left of the water-guarded green. From 85 yards Woods played a baby cut with his 60-degree wedge. The ideal way to attack that pin is to land the ball short and right of the hole and have it release down the slope, but Woods flew the shot a couple of yards too far. The ball struck the flagstick two feet up and caromed backward at about a 45-degree angle to the left, rolling into the pond. Woods stared in disbelief but otherwise displayed little emotion.
About Augusta National's flagsticks: Though a club spokesman says otherwise, one caddie suggests there was something different about them in 2013. "All the players and caddies were talking about it," says the veteran caddie, who requested anonymity. "They were like twice as thick as usual. I had a feeling someone was going to get a bad break and have a ball bounce hard off the flag."
Under Rule 26-1, Woods had three options: 1) play a ball from the drop circle, which was on the left edge of the fairway about 40 yards short of the green; 2) draw an imaginary line from the hole to the point at which his ball entered the hazard and go as far back along that line as he wished for his drop; or 3) take a drop "as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played." Woods's caddie, Joe LaCava, remained in place as Woods walked toward the green to assess his options. In a postround interview with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi, Woods said, "I looked over the drop area—it wasn't very good, it was into the grain. Tough shot." Going farther back along the line was equally troublesome because it left him little green to work with.
So Woods trudged back up the fairway. Imagine for a moment his mental state: A 15th major title is within his grasp, and after hitting an almost perfect shot, he suffers one of the worst breaks of his career. It made sense when he told reporters after Saturday's play, "You know, I wasn't even really thinking. I was still a little ticked at what happened, and I was just trying to figure, O.K., I need to take some yardage off this shot."
It wasn't difficult for Woods to identify the spot of the original shot; the divot hole was easily seen on the pristine fairway, and LaCava was standing nearby. Instead, Woods backed up two paces while keeping an imaginary line between the divot and the flag. Later, he spelled out his thinking for Rinaldi. His 33-word explanation would prove fateful: "So I went back to where I was and actually took two yards farther back and tried to hit my shot another two yards off of what I felt like I hit it."
Here Woods was a victim of his hubris; he could have hit 100 balls from the previous spot, and it's highly unlikely he would have nicked the flagstick again. But in his mind he needed those extra two yards to prevent lightning from striking twice.
Woods could have called in a rules official to oversee the drop or asked LaCava for counsel, but he chose to do neither. Scott Piercy and Luke Donald, Woods's playing partners, and their caddies were also of no use as they were waiting near the green. Says Donald, "You respect the player that they know the rules and they're going to get it right. You're not over their shoulder, watching every little thing."
Woods's reload from 87 yards landed four paces short of the flagstick, took one big bounce and spun to a stop four feet below the hole. He made the putt to salvage a good bogey, but his troubles were only beginning.
David Eger, 62, has long been one of golf's preeminent rules experts. After going broke trying to play the PGA Tour in the late 1970s, he became a high-level bureaucrat, serving as director of tournament administration for the Tour and later as its vice president of competition; in between he was senior director of rules and competition for the USGA. He has gone on to have a successful career on the Champions tour, winning four times. "The rules of golf are like a religion to David," says his contemporary Mike Donald. "He has a lot of conviction in his beliefs."
Eger was at home in Charlotte watching the Friday action on his 60-inch high-def television. As Woods was playing the 14th hole, Eger's wife, Tricia, asked for help in the garden. He set the DVR and walked outside. Woods was putting on the 16th green when Eger settled back in front of the TV. He noticed that Woods had dropped a shot on number 15, so he rewound the telecast to see where Tiger had erred. "The thing I saw immediately," Eger says, "was that there was no divot hole when [Woods] played his third shot, but when he dropped the ball to play his fifth shot, he was several steps in back of an obvious divot hole. I kept replaying it to make sure I was seeing it correctly. I realized he had played from the improper spot—there was no doubt it was a penalty. The question was whether [officials] would get to it before he signed his scorecard. That was my only motivation—to prevent Tiger from being disqualified [for signing an incorrect scorecard]. Because I had no doubt other people would catch the infraction too."
Indeed, Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee would spot it that evening during the filming of Live from the Masters. According to a source at the network Chamblee was quite vocal about wanting to point out the potential infraction on-air, but he was overruled by his producers, who felt there wasn't enough time to properly report the story.
Eger knew that Mickey Bradley, a PGA Tour rules official, was working the Masters. He sent him a text about what he had spotted. Bradley had already left the course, so he forwarded the text to Mark Russell, the Tour's vice president for rules and competition and a fellow member of the Masters rules committee. Bradley then called Ridley. "He thanked me for bringing it to his attention," Bradley says of Ridley. "He was very professional." The clock was ticking—Woods was going to complete his round in about 20 minutes—so Russell also texted Ridley. "Fred definitely knew that this had originated with David Eger," says Russell.
And there's the rub, because Ridley and Eger have some history. "We've had a few disagreements through the years," Eger admits. He played for the 1989 U.S. Walker Cup team, which was captained by Ridley. In an opening-day foursomes match Eger recalls conceding a 10-inch putt, earning an admonishment from his captain that he found insulting. Eger competed at the U.S. Open nine years later, and during a backup in play he practiced his putting on the vacant 7th green. Though it is allowed at the Open, Ridley, who was then the USGA's treasurer and working the event as a rules official, approached Eger and suggested he was committing a violation. Eger told him to check with another official and continued putting. Ridley returned to acknowledge his mistake, but the hard feelings endure. Eger recounted these episodes in a first-person piece in the October 2013 Golf Digest and concluded with the kind of public put-down that is rare in the chummy world of golf administration: "In my view, Ridley's knowledge of the Rules of Golf was, and is, suspect."
Nevertheless, Ridley was mobilized by Eger's text. He went to tournament headquarters to review footage of Woods's drop. For all their specificity, the Rules of Golf allow for judgment calls; case in point is the phrase "as nearly as possible" in 26-1a. But because Woods had left a sizable divot, it was easy to be precise. "Clearly, two yards is not as nearly as possible," says Russell. The Masters rules committee is populated by experts, but Ridley asked none of them to review the drop with him. He alone would be Woods's judge and jury.
Fred Ridley is the answer to a trivia question: Who is the last U.S. Amateur champion not to turn pro? He claimed that title in 1975, shortly after graduating from Florida, where he played on a team that won the '73 national championship. Ridley competed in three consecutive Masters beginning in 1976, the start of his enduring love affair with Augusta National. "He revered Bobby Jones and everything he stood for," says good friend Tom Shannon. "That played into his decision not to turn pro." Ridley went to the Stetson University College of Law and built a successful practice in Tampa. He became the insider's insider, holding a number of positions within the USGA, including president from 2004 to '06, and often helped resolve rules disputes at USGA events. "Fred was not our most knowledgeable person on the rules, and I think he'd tell you that," says Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director. "But what made him so effective when it came to resolving sticky rules situations was that he was quick to solicit advice and counsel from other experts."
Ridley was valuable for another reason, according to Davis: "Because of his competitive background, he came at the rules with a player's perspective."
This dovetailed with the sensibilities of the Masters competition committee, which Ridley joined in 2007; the green coats have a long history of giving the benefit of the doubt to their guests, especially the game's biggest names. The most famous incident came during the final round in 1958, when Arnold Palmer's tee shot on the 12th hole embedded in the bank behind the green. He asked an official for relief but was denied. Palmer refused to accept the ruling, so he played both his original ball, with which he made double bogey, and a provisional that he dropped into a better lie, leading to a par. Three holes later officials ruled the par would stand. Palmer claimed a one-shot victory and his first title at Augusta.
The green coats made a rare hard-line decision in 1968, when Roberto de Vicenzo signed a final-round scorecard on which his playing partner, Tommy Aaron, had incorrectly given him a par on the 71st hole instead of his rightful birdie. De Vicenzo was forced to accept the higher score, costing him a chance for a playoff against Bob Goalby. This disaster ingrained in the mind of every player that signing a correct scorecard is sacrosanct to competitive golf.
As Ridley stared at his TV screen, reviewing the drop, the moment of truth arrived for him, for Woods and for a tournament they both venerate. Ridley may have had a history of being a consensus builder, but Augusta National has long clung to an autocratic style. Did Ridley choose not to see a violation because he knew the tip had come from Eger? Was he hesitant to create more bad headlines while the tournament was being pilloried for the Guan penalty? Did Ridley think his chances of succeeding Payne as chairman—he'd long been considered the heir apparent—would be jeopardized if he DQ'd Tiger Woods from the Masters? All we can do is wonder, because Ridley has retreated behind Augusta National's traditional wall of silence: Through the club he declined to be interviewed for this story.
Ridley's initial mistake in not spotting the violation was compounded by an even bigger one: Although consulting with a player is standard procedure in such a situation, he chose not to talk with Woods before he signed his scorecard. "I fully expected to see a half-dozen guys in green jackets intercept Tiger as he walked off the [18th] green," says Eger. No one materialized.
When leader Jason Day missed a birdie putt on 18, Guan made the cut thanks to the 10-shot rule, a feel-good ending to two trying days. But the story of the second round was now Woods's bad break at the 15th hole, and his two shots from the fairway were staples of every highlights show. Eger caught the interview with Rinaldi, but he didn't follow up. "I did what I thought I should do and left it at that," Eger says. "I tried to help. I couldn't do any more."
Eger's identity as the man who called in the would-be infraction wasn't revealed until three weeks later, in a story by SI's Michael Bamberger, but social media was pulsating after the second round ended. At 8:38 p.m. EDT, the Twitter feed @MiniTourProblems asked, "Can someone explain how Tiger's drop on 15 was legal?" A discussion ensued that alluded to Woods's admission he had moved two yards back. The chatter began to spread exponentially.
Around 9:45, CBS staffers gathered in Butler Cabin to tape Masters Highlights, a 15-minute recap of the day's action. Cohosts Jim Nantz and David Feherty knocked it out in one take. Nantz was removing his microphone when he was approached by his producer, Bob Mansbach. Recalls Nantz, "He says to me, 'Hey, Jimmy, before you go, I'm hearing from some of the kids in the back' "—young, tech-savvy associate producers—" 'that Twitter is abuzz about Tiger and a possible rules violation on the 15th hole today. Do you know anything about it?' I hadn't heard a thing. As soon as the details were relayed to us, David says, 'Oh, gosh, that is a penalty, and there is a story here.' " Nantz called Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, and it was agreed that the show needed to be retaped with an extensive discussion about Woods's possible infraction. Nantz's next call was to Ridley, who was enjoying a late dinner with his family. Ridley explained he had reviewed the drop and exonerated Woods. Says Nantz, "I said, 'Yes, but there seems to be some concern that Tiger in his postround interview may have unwittingly incriminated himself.' Fred said, 'Oh, O.K. I didn't know about that. What did Tiger say?' I told him, and he said, 'I'm going to have to look into that.' "
Ridley made his way back to Augusta National to review more video, including Woods's comments. This time he brought along Masters officials Buzzy Johnson and Will Jones. In the initial review Bradley recalls Ridley's telling him he felt the notion that Woods had not dropped in the same spot was "splitting hairs." Now, through the lens of Woods's comments, he would see the situation differently.
In the retaped CBS highlights show, Nantz asked Feherty if Tiger's drop was legal. "Technically, it was not," was his answer. Nantz called it a "developing story" and ended the segment by saying, "The Masters rules committee will be looking at this one closely tomorrow morning."
It was after midnight when Ridley called Woods's agent, Mark Steinberg, requesting that Tiger come to the club early on Saturday to discuss his drop. Woods awakened to a text message from Steinberg imploring him to call.
At the 2011 Abu Dhabi Championship, Padraig Harrington opened with a 65, but following the round a viewer contacted European tour officials to say he had noticed that after Harrington replaced his ball on the 7th green, it moved fractionally. Because he failed to return his ball to its original position, Harrington was penalized two shots and disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. Three months later the USGA and the R&A addressed the situation with a revision to Decision 33-7/4.5, covering instances in which a player "is not aware he has breached a rule because of facts that he did not know and could not reasonably have discovered prior to returning his scorecard." Any penalties from the violation would stand, but disqualification would be waived. The governing bodies took pains to say "the disqualification penalty still applies for scorecard breaches that arise from ignorance of the Rules of Golf. As such, this decision reinforces that it is still the responsibility of the player to know the rules...." Among golf wonks this became known as the Harrington Rule. It would become a central part of the plot of the drop.
Woods arrived at Augusta National at 8 a.m. on Saturday to meet with Payne and Ridley. When Chamblee reached the Golf Channel set, he looked at his colleagues and asked, "Is there anyone here who doesn't think we should have talked about this on the air last night?" This grievance would fuel him once Live from the Masters went on the air at 9:30 a.m. In his opening comments host Rich Lerner described "a situation that is threatening to consume this Masters."
Chamblee referred to Bobby Jones's calling a penalty on himself at the 1925 U.S. Open, where he would lose by a stroke in a 36-hole playoff. Chamblee held it up as a defining act of sportsmanship and wagging his finger at the camera said, "It is incumbent on Tiger Woods to call this penalty on himself and disqualify himself for signing an incorrect scorecard." A few minutes later, reporter Steve Sands broke in with a live update: "Tiger Woods has just been assessed a two-shot penalty. Remember the rule was changed by the USGA last year, applied here this morning by Augusta National Golf Club." A moment later Rinaldi reported the same news on SportsCenter.
Clearly both reporters were being fed information by an insider, but they had been directed to the wrong part of the rule book. (Both declined to discuss what role Masters officials played in their reporting.) The Harrington Rule was added to cover things not readily visible to the naked eye—it didn't make sense to apply it to Woods's drop. It would not be made clear until a few hours later, but the competition committee had acted not under the revision to Decision 33-7/4.5 but under 33-7 itself, which dates to 1952 and has been untouched since '88. It states, "A penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted."
The initial reports from Golf Channel and ESPN framed the debate that followed, and pegging Woods's reprieve to 33-7/4.5 was a critical mistake. It created the perception that Masters officials were perverting the Harrington Rule to keep Woods in the tournament. This line of thinking put the onus on Woods: Would he accept a bogus ruling in a win-at-all-costs bid for another Masters? Or would he do the gentlemanly thing and withdraw from the tournament for signing an incorrect scorecard?
In the cut back to the studio Chamblee was only partially visible when he could be heard muttering on air, "He will never live this down." He went on to say, "This is going to be most controversial thing that follows [Woods] around for the rest of his career. It is incumbent on him to ... disqualify himself. Anything else, frankly, is unacceptable." Over the next hour and a half Chamblee would be relentless in his criticism of Woods.
About 20 minutes after the penalty was announced, Nick Faldo joined Chamblee and said, "Me personally, this is dreadful.... That is the greatest thing about our rules, they're black-and-white. That's a breach of the rules, simple as that.... [Woods] should really sit down and think about this and the mark this would leave on his career and legacy, everything.... It would be doing the real manly thing ... if he stands up and says, I have clearly broken the rules, and I'll walk and see you next week."
In the press room reporters were huddled around TVs following the coverage because they had nothing else to go on: Woods, scheduled to tee off at 2:10 p.m., had left the grounds without comment, Payne and Ridley were nowhere to be seen, and no press release had been circulated. How could the green coats have been caught so flat-footed?
The chairman of the Masters media committee is Craig Heatley, an Augusta National member who made his fortune in part by founding Sky TV in his native New Zealand. Two days before Woods's drop, Heatley had spoken at the annual awards dinner held by the Golf Writers Association of America. To a room full of reporters he mentioned his indifference to social media and noted he had learned how to use email only a couple of years earlier. This is the man who was now charged with handling the most confounding decision in the history of the tournament. Heatley was in the press room throughout Saturday morning but, given Augusta National's rigid, top-down leadership structure, not empowered to comment. All he could do was repeatedly promise that a statement would be forthcoming.
Finally, at 10:15 a.m., a four-paragraph press release was issued under Ridley's name. It laid out the particulars, including the first acknowledgment that a television viewer had played a role and that the drop had been reviewed unbeknownst to Woods. Only one sentence was devoted to Tiger's stay of execution: "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." The imprecision of the wording only further confused matters, because the release did not cite the passage of Rule 33 that was being applied.
At 11:54 a.m., Woods sent out a series of bland tweets recapping the situation. He concluded by saying, "I understand and accept the penalty and respect the Committees' [sic] decision." There was no hint he ever considered withdrawing.
The debate raged on. Greg Norman, who spent 331 weeks at No. 1 in the World Ranking, tweeted, "It is all about the player and the integrity of the game. Woods violated the rules as he played #1 carries a greater burden. WD for the game." Shane Lowry, a European tour player, chimed in, tweeting: "This is a joke. In my opinion anyone else would have been DQ'd. When you sign for the wrong score that's what's supposed to happen." It's true that Woods had no idea what was going on behind the scenes when he signed his scorecard, but Ridley's failure to identify the violation and his decision not to discuss the situation with Woods created exactly the "exceptional individual case" described in 33-7, allowing for disqualification to be waived.
It wasn't until 1 p.m. that Ridley went to the press room to discuss particulars. Payne, like onetime Augusta National member Dwight D. Eisenhower, sees himself as an authoritative leader, but he did not accompany Ridley to offer support. To those in the room, the message was clear: You made this mess. Now go face the music. (Augusta National declined to make Payne available for an interview.)
Ridley did an admirable job dealing with his inquisitors. The press conference ended with this question: "Is there a concern on your part that the perception is going to be that you guys are [giving] Tiger special treatment?" Ridley replied, "All I can say is that unequivocally this tournament is about integrity. Our founder Bobby Jones was about integrity, and if this had been John Smith from wherever, he would have gotten the same ruling, because again, it is the right ruling under these circumstances."
With the two-stroke penalty, Woods's score on the 15th hole became an 8, giving him a second-round 73 that dropped him to one under, five strokes behind Day. Tiger did not play his best golf over the weekend, finishing tied for fourth, four back of Adam Scott. Four strokes is, of course, the difference between what he might have made at 15 had his third shot missed the flagstick and the snowman he wound up with. But not winning was probably the best thing that could have happened to Woods and the Masters because it avoided the nightmare scenario of an asterisk being attached to his quest to break Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major-championship victories.
The drop seemed to follow Woods everywhere in 2013. In May, he was leading the Players during the final round when he hooked his tee shot on the 14th hole into the water. Where he played his third shot from created a new kerfuffle. On the NBC telecast Johnny Miller opined, "That Tiger drop was really, really borderline. I can't live with myself without saying that." For all the mistakes Woods made in his private life, his reputation for upholding the rules had always been beyond reproach, even after he was assessed a two-shot penalty in Abu Dhabi in January 2013 for improperly taking relief in a sandy area. Now he was no longer being given the benefit of the doubt.
In September, during the second round of the BMW Championship, Woods's ball settled in a grove of trees behind the 1st green. As he tried to clear loose impediments, his ball moved and he immediately recoiled. Woods did not report the movement to his playing partners or tournament officials, saying later he thought the ball had merely oscillated and settled in its original position. PGA Tour rules officials assessed a two-stroke penalty, which Woods vehemently protested despite video replays clearly showing the ball had changed positions. The Associated Press's Doug Ferguson wrote a story that suggested Woods was in danger of "losing the locker room. A few players privately mocked him during the final round. 'Oscillation' became a punch line."
In an October column for Golf.com, Chamblee graded Tiger's season an F because he had been "a little cavalier" with the rules. When Steinberg said he was considering legal action, Chamblee apologized and gave up his writing gig for GOLF MAGAZINE and Golf.com, which are part of the SI Golf Group.
All of this unpleasantness can be traced to a series of mistakes that intruded upon the carefully maintained artificial reality within the gates of Augusta National. A year after the drop, many of those involved wish the whole thing would just go away. Augusta National's culture of stonewalling has a chilling effect—no print reporter would speak on the record for this story, while Woods, Steinberg and LaCava declined interview requests, just as Golf Channel execs silenced their on-air talent. What we do have are the words from Ridley's press conference, and one mournful line rings even more true now. Asked if he wished he had spoken to Woods before he signed his scorecard on that fateful Friday evening, Ridley replied, "There's not a day that goes by that there are not some things I wish I would have done differently."
Editor's note: This story was originally published April 9, 2014, on Golf.com