Thanks to controversial penalty, Masters win would be one of Tiger's greatest triumphs

Thanks to controversial penalty, Masters win would be one of Tiger’s greatest triumphs

Tiger Woods was hit with a two-shot penalty for taking this illegal drop on the 15th hole during his second round.
John W. McDonough / Sports Illustrated

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Well, there you have it. The most golf-y moment in the history of golf.

Tiger Woods just got hit with a two-stroke penalty for an illegal drop on the 15th hole at the Masters Friday. I think we can agree that it is a little nutty, but golf rules can be nutty. You have to follow them anyway. That's why golfers all wear collars on 100-degree days.

I'm not convinced Tiger's drop was illegal. And I'm not convinced it was legal, either. This is one of those rules that is open to interpretation. I need an interpretation of the interpretation. I also need some more coffee, but one thing at a time.

I think, ultimately, the Masters made the right decision. I'll get to that in a minute. First, let's pause, think about all those linemen who punched other linemen in the testicles when they were under a pile with no repercussions whatsoever, and then review what passes for a serious rules violation in golf.

On Friday afternoon, I crouched next to a rope and watched Woods hit the most disastrous great shot of his life. He had missed the fairway with his drive on the par-5 15th, then told caddie Joe LaCava he wanted to lay up to give himself a 70-yard shot to the hole.

He punched out to 70 yards, or pretty close to it. Then he hit a perfect shot. Too perfect. It hit the pin and went in the water.

Woods thought about dropping in the drop area, but decided instead to drop in the same spot as his original shot. Sort of. He said later, "I went back to where I played it from, but I went two yards further back and I took, tried to take two yards off the shot of what I felt I hit."

What he should have said was "I'm going to say something innocuous that totally screws me over when people hear it." Nobody, and I mean nobody, thought Tiger broke a rule when he dropped the ball. Masters officials reviewed the drop before his round was complete and decided it was legal.

But when Woods explained his intent afterward, alert golf fans screamed that he couldn't drop it two yards back. He had to drop "as near as possible" to the original spot.

So the Masters Rules Committee reviewed the drop. And decided he really deserved a two-stroke penalty. This would normally mean Tiger signed an incorrect scorecard, which would mean disqualification, which would mean remarkable levels of profanity. But since Tiger he had been cleared before he finished his round, the Masters waived the whole signing-an-incorrect-scorecard thing.

Now, on to the most important thing here, which is of course, my opinion.

(Uh …)

First, it would be ridiculous to disqualify him. You can't tell a guy he shot 71, have him sign for it, then say no, it was a 73, get on your private plane. That would be idiotic.

And second: Where was Tiger supposed to drop? He couldn't drop in the exact same spot, because his divot was there. Everybody understands you don't have to drop in your divot. But where do you drop? Six inches away? A foot? A yard? Would that be a meter if this were the Canadian Open?

Woods said he dropped two yards back, but on video, it looks more like two feet. To me, that is perfectly fine. But I've been known to concede an eight-foot put if I see a beverage cart on the next hole.

Woods did not cheat, but that is not really the point. Cheating is about intent, and intent is irrelevant. Fourteen-year-old Tianlang Guan didn't cheat Friday when he was assessed a stroke penalty for slow play either. But I thought Guan's penalty was justified, even though it was cruel. Guan broke the rule. He was warned that if he went beyond the 40-second limit, he would be penalized, and he went beyond it. It's a stupid rule, and largely an ineffective one. But Guan did break it.

I'm 100 percent sure that Tiger thought he was following the rule. Otherwise, why would he explain his reasoning publicly afterward? If he thought he had done anything wrong and wanted to cover it up, he would not have brought up where he dropped the ball.

And yet: just as with Guan, the rules are the rules. The Rules Committee's interpretation is all that matters. So a two-stroke penalty makes sense to me. And now Tiger, who would probably five-under par if that first approach had not hit the pin, is one-under. Leader Jason Day is six-under.

If Tiger wins, some will say the win deserves an asterisk, because he should have been DQ'ed. I take the opposite view. It would be one of his most epic triumphs. Tiger Woods is trying to win the Masters after a perfect shot cost him four strokes.