The Story Behind Tiger’s Ruling at the Masters: How Woods Was Saved From Disqualification

March 20, 2014

Near the center of the Tiger Woods rules fiasco at the Masters this year was a call that Fred Ridley, the tournament’s competition committee chairman and a club member, said came from a “television viewer.”

Millions watched Woods make his now-famous second-round drop on ESPN on the 15th hole at 6:33 p.m. on that Friday in mid-April. But only one person was able to get a message to Ridley about it. And that person, it turns out, was the Champions tour golfer David Eger.

Before joining the senior circuit, Eger had a long career as a tournament director with both the PGA Tour and the USGA. Along with Mark Russell of the PGA Tour and Kerry Haigh of the PGA of America, Eger is one of the most experienced tournament officials in U.S. golf and an expert on the rules.

In a recent telephone interview, Eger said he was causally watching the Friday round of the Masters in his Florida home. As Woods came off the 16th green, where he got up and down for par, Eger noticed Woods had dropped a shot since he had last seen his score. Eger was curious to see how that had happened.

Through the magic of modern TV, Eger was able to rewind and watch Woods on the 15th hole. He saw Woods play his third shot, the one that famously hit the fiberglass flagstick and caromed into the water. He then watched Woods take his drop.

“I could see there was a divot — not a divot, a divot hole — when he played the shot the second time that was not there the first time,” Eger said. “I played it again and again. I could see that the fairway was spotless the first time he played the shot and there was that divot hole, maybe three or four feet in front of where he played after the drop.”

The Rules of Golf are necessarily severe in their exactitude. A player, when competing under rule 26-1-a, as Woods was, is required to drop “as nearly as possible” to the ball’s previous position. Some say the language is imprecise, but another view is that the language could not be more precise. It is worded that way because a golfer might not know the exact location from which he played his previous shot.

Of course, if the golfer takes a divot, then the exact location is known. And Woods took a divot on the shot that found the water. The procedure then is to drop immediately behind the divot. The intention of the rule is to have the golfer play, in essence, the exact same shot again. But Woods did not do that.

Eger knew immediately there had been a possible rules violation. He also knew he had to act quickly so that Woods would not sign an incorrect scorecard, which almost always leads to disqualification.

It is a quirk of golf that anybody may report a possible rules infraction. It helps ensure accurate scorecards. Without the public’s faith in the posted scores, tournament golf as we know it would not be possible. Eger and many people like him have an intuitive and deep understanding of that underlying principle.

Back at the Eger home — and in Augusta — the clock was ticking. Eger said he did not have a phone number for Ridley, but he did have one for Mickey Bradley, a veteran PGA Tour official who he knew was working the Masters. The tournament brings in rules officials from all over the world to officiate. Eger called Bradley, who, done with his work for the day, had already left the grounds.

“I was driving on Washington Road and I saw that David was calling, so I pulled over to the side,” Bradley said last Saturday, while sitting in a golf cart off the 6th hole of TPC Louisiana, where he was working the Zurich Classic. The previous day, Bradley had become a YouTube sensation when he calmly drove alongside a three-legged alligator that had decided to watch some golf. Bradley, from Biloxi, Miss., knows his way around wildlife.

Eger described the drop to Bradley. Their call ended, and Eger sent Bradley a text message about it as well.

Bradley immediately called Ridley and Russell, the veteran PGA Tour administrator who is on the three-man Masters competition committee that is chaired by Ridley, a former U.S. Amateur champion and USGA president. Bradley also forwarded Eger’s text to Russell and Ridley. In his text, Eger wrote that Woods “didn’t appear to play by Rule 26-1-a.” He wrote that he “appeared to be 3-4 feet back” from his divot mark.

Bradley forwarded Eger’s text message at 6:59 p.m.

Tiger was still on the course.

Bradley drove to his rental house, concerned about whether Russell and Ridley would have time to review the drop before Woods left the scorer’s room having signed his card.

The Masters moved the scoring area to a new location last year. Players used to check and sign their cards in a small wooden building immediately behind the 18th green that looked like a Monopoly house. Now, the players walk about 150 yards to a quiet and secluded room in the clubhouse, between the pro shop and the locker room.

After emerging from the scorer’s room, Woods, after each round, conducted a series of interviews. That typically meant talking to a group of TV reporters and a group of print reporters as well as doing individual interviews with Golf Channel, ESPN and/or CBS.

Woods has a long record of being polite, cooperative and willfully dull in these proceedings. Not always — he has done hundreds of them, in all sorts of different moods — but usually. He is most comfortable filling the time with technical descriptions of his play. It was in his post-round Friday interview with Tom Rinaldi of ESPN that Woods volunteered that he went “two yards” farther back when he made his drop on 15, to play a slightly different shot the second time.

In a telephone interview on Sunday, Russell said the video of the drop was reviewed before Woods finished his round. Russell said he did not review the tape because he was on the course. He also said there were roving rules officials on the 15th hole and others stationed by the green, but they were too far away to see precisely where the ball was dropped. Woods did not request any help with the drop, neither from his playing partners nor from rules officials. That’s not surprising. Golf has many complicated rules, but dropping under 26-1-a is not one of them.

At 7:30 p.m., 10 minutes after Woods completed his round, Ridley responded by text to Bradley. Regarding Eger’s estimate of three to four feet, Ridley wrote that Woods “was closer than that.” To look at it closer, he wrote, would be “splitting hairs.” Ridley determined that Woods had done nothing wrong, so there was no point in asking him about the drop.

A rules official faces a difficult balancing act. He or she is obligated to help both the player and to protect the field. Being too liberal with a ruling to a player comes at a cost to the field. That is why precision is so important in the rules: a ball is either in bounds or out. The rules attempt, not always successfully, to eliminate all gray areas. Ridley was, in effect, saying that Eger’s analysis was wrong and that the drop met the “nearly as possible” requirement of 26-1-a. In making that decision he eliminated all the gray in a situation that Eger, an outside observer, but a knowledgeable one, saw as awash in gray.

At about 10:15 on Friday night, nearly three hours after his return text to Bradley, Ridley was informed of Woods’s comments to ESPN, by way of a call from Jim Nantz of CBS. The network was taping its 11:30 p.m. Masters recap show when producers saw Twitter chatter questioning the legality of Woods’s drop, on the basis of the ESPN interview, during which Woods essentially incriminated himself, unknowingly indicating he made an incorrect drop when he moved back those two yards.

Nantz asked Ridley if he was aware of the internet rumblings. He was not. On the recap show, David Feherty outlined the options Woods had available to play his fifth shot on 15 and questioned whether the drop was made correctly.

After the call from Nantz, Ridley contacted Woods’s agent, Mark Steinberg, who was having dinner at jam-packed T-Bonz Steakhouse on Washington Road late on Friday. Steinberg forwarded Ridley’s message to Woods, and Woods met with Ridley on Saturday morning. At that time, Woods was assessed the two-shot penalty.

On Saturday afternoon, Ridley met with reporters to explain the circumstances of Woods’s penalty and the enforcement of a seldom-used rule that allows a tournament committee to, essentially, right wrongs and undo its errors. Eger believes that Ridley “came to the right decision” but that the path there was a needlessly difficult one. He also believes there was enough evidence to approach Woods before he signed his card — to protect the player and the field. How the issue affected, if at all, Woods’s weekend play will never be known.

The epicenter of the rules fiasco is that Woods made an incorrect drop and subsequently signed an incorrect scorecard, which is why some people think he should have withdrawn. Eger’s call, the ESPN interview, Ridley’s ill-fated review of the tape, those things all stem from Woods’s mistake. It should be noted that Eger’s call saved Woods from disqualification, because it spurred Ridley’s incorrect interpretation, which was challenged by Woods’s own comments to ESPN, which enabled Ridley to invoke rule 33-7, the one that allows wrongs to be righted. Ridley and Woods now share more than U.S. Amateur titles. They are the protagonists in maybe the most complicated chapter in the history of golfing jurisprudence.

At a press conference on Masters Saturday, on the question of whether he might have done things differently, Ridley said, “There’s not a day that goes by that there are not some things I wish I would have done differently.”

Those words were an interesting and broadly philosophical commentary on the nature of life and regret, and a moment of relief in a press conference that was comically legalistic to many ordinary sports fans.

The press conference was conducted by Craig Heatley, the club’s press committee chairman and an Augusta National member. At the start, Heatley said, “You are all aware of an important and complex ruling. That ruling requires nothing less than complete transparency, and I’ve asked Fred to come down and answer any and all questions that you may have pertaining to that.” The session ended with hands still in the air.

Last Friday, Eger spoke about the drop. The next day, Mickey Bradley did. On Sunday, Mark Russell did. On Monday, Steve Ethun, an Augusta National spokesman, responded to an interview request sent to Fred Ridley by e-mail. Ethun said Ridley was traveling and would be unavailable.