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

Billy Payne
Augusta National Chairman William Payne. / Fred Vuich/Sports Illustrated

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.

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