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Tiger Woods and the Drop: An inside look at golf's most controversial pardon

Tiger Woods 2013 Masters Drop
Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated
After Woods's first approach bounced back into the water, he dropped and hit a shot even more brilliant.

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."

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