And with help from my lawyers, and a team of Talmudic scholars, I think I understand where golf’s governing body stands.
In case you missed it, the release came out this morning: a 2,000-plus word statement from the USGA, addressing what Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger aptly describes as “maybe the most complicated chapter in the history of golfing jurisprudence.” Much of the statement retreads what is now familiar ground: Tiger finding the water at 15 when his approach rebounded off the flagstick; compounding his misfortune with an apparent rules infraction; then signing what turned out to be an incorrect scorecard, given that he’d taken an improper drop. In signing incorrectly, Woods violated rule 6-6d, which typically results in disqualification.
But as the golf world now knows, the Masters Tournament Committee spared Woods from a DQ by invoking Rule 33-7, which holds that a “penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual case be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted.”
But was this case exceptional enough?
Here’s what the USGA had to say. (Warning: reading the following excerpt may cause sudden drowsiness and should not be attempted while operating heavy machinery.)
For nearly 60 years, the Rules have provided Committees with limited discretion to waive a disqualification penalty. Under Rule 33-7, “[a] penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted.”
Such discretion is not intended to protect a competitor from the consequences of his erroneous application of the Rules. The fact that Woods, when he returned his score card, was not aware that he had incurred a two-stroke penalty on the 15th hole was not a basis to waive disqualification under Rule 33-7.
Moreover, contrary to what some have suggested, the decision of the Committee to waive the disqualification penalty for Woods was not and could not have been based on Decision 33-7/4.5, a 2011 Decision that permits waiver of disqualification where “the competitor could not reasonably have known or discovered the facts resulting in his breach of the Rules.”
That extremely narrow exception, which relates generally to use of high-definition or slow-motion video to identify facts not reasonably visible to the naked eye, was not applicable here and had no bearing on the Committee’s decision. Woods was aware of the only relevant fact: the location of the spot from which he last played his ball. His two-stroke penalty resulted from an erroneous application of the Rules, which he was responsible for knowing and applying correctly. Viewing the incident solely from the standpoint of Woods’ actions, there was no basis to waive the penalty of disqualification under Rule 6-6d.
However, the Masters Tournament Committee did not base its exercise of discretion under Rule 33-7 on any circumstances specific to Woods’ knowledge, but rather on the consequences of the Committee’s own actions. Before Woods had returned his score card for the second round, the Committee had received an inquiry from a television viewer questioning whether Woods, in taking relief under Rule 26-1a at the 15th hole, had dropped his ball sufficiently close to the spot from which he had played his original ball.
The Committee promptly reviewed an available video and determined that Woods had dropped and played correctly under Rule 26-1a and therefore had not incurred a penalty. The Committee did not talk with Woods before making this ruling or inform him of the ruling. Woods therefore signed and returned his score card without knowledge of the Committee’s ruling or the questions about his drop on the 15th hole.
The following morning, after additional questions had been raised about the incident in a television interview, the Committee discussed the incident with Woods, reviewed the video with him and reversed its decision, ruling that Woods had dropped in and played from a wrong place.
In deciding to waive the disqualification penalty, the Committee recognized that had it talked to Woods – before he returned his score card – about his drop on the 15th hole and about the Committee’s ruling, the Committee likely would have corrected that ruling and concluded that Woods had dropped in and played from a wrong place. In that case, he would have returned a correct score of 8 for the 15th hole and the issue of disqualification would not have arisen.
The Decisions on the Rules of Golf authorize a Committee to correct an incorrect decision before the competition has closed, and they establish that where a Committee incorrectly advises a competitor, before he returns his scorecard, that he has incurred no penalty, and then subsequently corrects its mistake, it is appropriate for the Committee to waive the disqualification penalty. See Decision 34-3/1.
The Woods situation differed from the situation in Decision 34-3/1, and in other Decisions that protect a competitor from disqualification where the competitor has relied on erroneous information from a referee or the Committee, in that Woods was not informed of the Committee’s initial ruling and therefore did not rely on the Committee’s advice in returning his score card. This situation therefore raised a question not expressly addressed in the existing Decisions under Rules 33-7 and 34-3 and that reflected two competing considerations.
On the one hand, the Decisions provide that the player’s responsibility for his own score is not excused by his ignorance or misapplication of the Rules. On the other hand, the Decisions provide that a Committee may correct an erroneous decision and may take its error into account in determining whether it is appropriate to waive the penalty of disqualification.
In effect, based on all of the facts discussed above, in this case both the competitor and the Committee reached an incorrect decision before the score card was returned.
The Masters Tournament Committee concluded that its actions taken prior to Woods’ returning his score card created an exceptional individual case that unfairly led to the potential for disqualification.
In hindsight, the Committee determined that its initial ruling was incorrect, as well as that it had erred in resolving this question without first seeking information from Woods and in failing to inform Woods of the ruling.
Given the unusual combination of facts – as well as the fact that nothing in the existing Rules or Decisions specifically addressed such circumstances of simultaneous competitor error and Committee error – the Committee reasonably exercised its discretion under Rule 33-7 to waive the penalty of disqualification under Rule 6-6d, while still penalizing Woods two strokes under Rules 26-1a and 20-7c for playing from a wrong place.
Bottom line: In the USGA’s view, the Committee was justified in sparing Woods, but only because it had goofed in the first place by not talking to Woods about his improper drop before he had a chance to sign his card.
Got it? The good news is, situations like this come around about as often as the comet Kohoutek.
But just in case, the USGA has pledged to “review the exceptional situation that occurred at the 2013 Masters Tournament, assess the potential implications for other types of situations, and determine whether any adjustment to the Rules/and/or the Decisions is appropriate.”
Rest easy, golf fans. Next time the world’s No.1-ranked player gets freakishly unlucky; violates a rule that he should have known but does not get penalized for during his round; signs an incorrect scorecard then unwittingly indicts himself in a post-round interview, triggering a controversy that prompts critics to question the integrity of the year’s first major — the next time that happens, everyone should know exactly what to do.
(Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP)