Tiger Woods rules controversy showed a little common sense won't kill the game

Tiger Woods rules controversy showed a little common sense won’t kill the game

Tiger Woods is four shots off the lead heading into the final round at the Masters.
Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fans who visit Augusta National for the first time usually say they can't believe how hilly it is. I know what they mean. On Saturday, I walked up to a molehill, only to be told that it's really a mountain.

See, I thought that Tiger Woods took an illegal drop on the 15th hole on Friday and was properly penalized two strokes for it. Oh, how silly I was. As it turns out, he embarrassed the game, he should have disqualified himself, he doesn't understand what made America great, and hey, come back here, Tiger, we have some fresh coals to rake you over?

Good grief. I have a little breaking news for people who see themselves as Keepers of the Game: Bobby Jones has been dead for 40 years. Whenever you're ready, feel free to join us here in the 21st century. We'll be waiting for you with free wi-fi.

If we can stop bathing in our outrage for a second, we might realize: We're watching an amazing story here. Woods is three under par heading into the final round. Co-leaders Angel Cabrera and Brandt Snedeker are at seven under.

If Woods's approach into the 15th green on Friday had not hit the flagstick, he would most likely be tied for the lead, and at worst would be six under. Instead, the ball hit the pin and caromed into the water, leading to the illegal drop, and ultimately costing him three or four strokes.

And at the 8th hole on Saturday, a short birdie circled the cup before spinning out.

That is a five-stroke loss because of two tiny strokes of bad luck.

Yet in the beautifully wild tournament that is the Masters, Woods still has a chance to win the thing. That's how well he has played this week. I think that's kind of cool, but what do I know? I'm one of those idiots who likes watching LeBron James play basketball.

The real story here is not that Tiger got to stay in the tournament. It's that he was penalized. The Masters rules committee did it. All Woods did was accept the ruling. This would be considered exemplary sportsmanship in any other sport.

Why did he break the rule?

"I wasn't even really thinking," he said. "I was still a little ticked at what happened, and I was just trying to figure, O.K., I need to take some yardage off this shot. And all I was thinking about was trying to make sure I took some yardage off of it, and evidently, it was pretty obvious I didn't drop in the right spot."

And what does he think of TV analysts who say he should have disqualified himself?

"I don't know," Woods said. "Under the Rules of Golf, I can play."

This week, I have seen Pro Football Hall of Famer Marcus Allen, CBS announcer Clark Kellogg and professional skateboarder Eric Koston following Woods at Augusta National, along with lesser-known college coaches from multiple sports. And in the context of other sports, we see just how absurd this controversy is.

We accept Peyton Manning begging for pass interference or James snapping at the referees, but when Woods says he understands a penalty that might cost him the Masters, we scream that he should have disqualified himself. Man, I wish our standards for sportsmanship were as high as we claim. I wonder how many of the people saying Woods should do the honorable thing and disqualify himself have cut me off in traffic.

Actually, I think most people are reasonable about this. I followed Woods for most of the third round. I heard one fan criticize him the whole day. One. And it wasn't even about the drop.

And this brings me to the real issue: A lot of people ripping Tiger's character made up their minds before this latest incident. They don't like him, either because he cheated on his wife,or because they think he is aloof and self-absorbed. Or both. They're entitled. Nobody is obligated to like him, any more than they are obligated to like Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els. Some of my media friends don't like Tiger because of their personal experiences with him, and they are entitled as well. I'm not interested in refereeing that discussion.

But if this all happened to Rory McIlroy, I doubt we would have one-tenth of the controversy. Why? Because almost everybody likes McIlroy.

By the way: It did happen to McIlroy. In Dubai, two months ago, McIlroy committed the same kind of accidental penalty that Woods did. He wiped sand off the fringe of the green with the back of his hand. It's clearly illegal (more so than what Woods did actually). McIlroy did not call a penalty on himself until playing partner Luke Donald told him what he did was illegal.

McIlroy wasn't trying to cheat. He blanked on one of golf's many rules, and he didn't realize it until somebody called him on it.

This is the same thing that happened to Woods this week. The only difference is that nobody called Woods on his mistake until after he had signed his scorecard. Woods's representatives, Mark Steinberg and Glenn Greenspan, found out about the issue so late on Friday that they didn't even contact Tiger until Saturday morning.

Are we really going to say that Woods should disqualify himself because the whistle blew a few hours later?

Let's use our heads here. I know, I know: Golf is different. It's about honor, dignity and holding yourself accountable. Jones famously called a penalty on himself in the U.S. Open, then said, "When you cheat in golf, the only person you're cheating is yourself." That doesn't explain why Jones's club refused to invite a black golfer to play in the Masters until after his death (yeah, I went there), but I really do get it.

Golf is different. I love that about golf. We don't expect Kevin Durant to call traveling on himself or Clayton Kershaw to say, "Oh no, that was ball four. Send that gentleman to first base!" Golfers are supposed to call penalties on themselves.

That is great. But in a rational world, what Woods did was somewhere between a technicality and a misdemeanor. The strategic advantage from dropping a yard or so away from his previous shot was miniscule. A two-stroke penalty is severe. And again: I think it's appropriately severe. Tiger said he does too — even though it might cost him the Masters.

A little common sense won't kill the game. What happened this weekend is not an affront to golf. It's called progress. A rule was instituted in April 2011 to insert some logic into post-round rules enforcement. That is the rule that Masters officials cited on Saturday.

In April 2011, Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A governing body, explained the reasoning behind the rule: "For some time we have been concerned that, in certain limited circumstances, disproportionate disqualification penalties have been required by the Rules. This carefully considered decision reflects our desire to ensure that the Rules of Golf remain fair and relevant in the changing environment in which the game is played today."

I don't normally look to golf governing bodies for progressive views of the world. But there it is. Perfectly reasonable. The R&A gets it, the Masters rules committee gets it, and yes, Woods gets it. The sun will come up on Sunday, and the final round of the Masters will be played, and Tiger Woods is in contention. This should be fun.