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

Ridley (above, left) and Heatley finally faced the media some five hours after meeting with Woods. / Fred Vuich

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.

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