AUGUSTA, Ga. — This looks bad.
Even Tiger Woods must know that, but then again, someone in his camp didn't realize it wouldn't look good to turn an old quote — "Winning takes care of everything" — into a marketing campaign for shoes a few weeks ago.
Has anyone in the Woods camp watched Golf Channel this morning? Has anyone bothered to check Twitter? Tiger has already lost in the court of public opinion, in a landslide. He has lost the TV analysts, he has lost the writers and even his fellow players, and he should have withdrawn instead of teeing it up with Gonzalo Fernandez-Costano at 1:45 p.m. Saturday. It was the only way Woods could have won the Masters.
Let's review one of the most rules-crazy Fridays in Masters history:
First, 14-year-old Chinese amateur Tianlang Guan is assessed a one-stroke penalty for slow play, putting him in danger of missing the cut. He accepts the rules committee's decision as the right one and makes the cut on the number. Asked to comment later, Woods says, "Well, rules are rules."
Then Woods, who at the time is five under par and in almost perfect position to make a run at his fifth green jacket, watches his seemingly perfect third shot clang off the bottom of the flagstick on the 15th hole and carom back in the water. He elects not to drop in the chewed-up drop area and instead goes back to where he played his third shot from, which is his prerogative. Only instead of dropping as near as possible to the original spot, as he is supposed to do, he drops somewhere between a yard or two behind his original divot to give himself a better yardage.
According to the statement of tournament headquarters, a TV viewer calls in to question the drop, and the rules committee reviews the drop and determines "he had complied with the rules." But after the round, Woods complicates matters when he says he deliberately dropped about six feet behind where he originally played his third shot from. "I went two yards further back, and I took — tried to take two yards off the shot of what I felt I hit [previously]," Woods says, apparently unaware that this is an improper drop, outside the Rules of Golf. But he is essentially announcing for all to hear that yes, he did it. He broke the rule.
Twitter erupts. The talking heads erupt. Popular opinion begins to coalesce on the side of disqualifying Woods, who after all should receive no special treatment, especially in light of what happened to Guan. After a long deliberation in which Woods is brought to the club to tell his side on Saturday morning, tournament HQ announces Woods has been dealt a two-stroke penalty in lieu of disqualification, saying, in part, "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." Translation: It was our fault, too, hence the reprieve.
Twitter erupts. The talking heads erupt. Justice is not blind.
"I was unaware at that time I had violated any rules," Woods tweets.
His supporters point out a 2011 rules change that allows for leniency in the case of ignorance on the part of the player and/or a viewer call-in that is inspired by an infraction caught with the aid of high definition television.
"I understand and accept the penalty and respect the Committee's decision," Woods adds on his Twitter account. He does not withdraw from the tournament.
Woods now can't win this Masters, however you want to define "win." He's five shots back, for one thing, and, even without the two-shot penalty, coming off a two-over 38 on the back nine on Friday in which he hit a succession of loose shots but saved himself with the putter. But that's beside the point. He looks like the beneficiary of favoritism, just as Rory McIlroy looked like the beneficiary of favoritism when he was thought to have illegally tested the sand in a bunker here in 2009, but was not disqualified.
Was Woods so flustered from getting such a bad break — his ball hitting the stick and going in the water — that he lost his head and took a careless, incorrect drop? That seems possible except for what he said after the round, which would indicate that at 37, in his 17th year on Tour, he really didn't know that what he was doing was wrong. The rules committee looks bad too. If the committee really was made aware of this immediately, why did no one say anything to Woods?
Would a lesser-known player such as D.A. Points already be on a plane home by now? Fred Ridley, the chairman of the tournament's competition committee, gave a press conference that clarified almost nothing, but he did say, "If this had been John Smith from wherever, he would have gotten the same decision." Do you believe him?
Here's another question: If ignorance is a defense for breaking the Rules of Golf, won't the Woods precedent save anyone from ever being disqualified again? Asked about this in his press conference, Ridley said that ignorance is no defense. Why does it seem like we're just making this up as we go along? "We have advised the governing bodies of the game of golf and the professional tours of our decision," Ridley said, "and they have concurred with our decision."
Asked to clarify the Woods situation, USGA spokesman Joe Goode directed questions back to Augusta National and the Masters tournament committee.
You could argue it's not Woods's job to fix a broken system, and you would be right. But as long as the Rules of Golf are so imperfect, it will continue to fall to the players to police themselves in cases such as Drop-Gate 2013. That's what PGA Tour hopeful Blayne Barber did when he disqualified himself from Q school last November because he believed he might have brushed a leaf in a bunker.
Bobby Jones thought his ball might have moved as he addressed it in the rough at the 1925 U.S. Open and assessed himself a one-stroke penalty. That dropped him into a playoff, which he lost, and when Jones was praised for it later, he famously said, "You might as well praise me for not robbing banks."
Woods could do himself a favor by learning from their examples. He's not going to win this Masters no matter where his name falls on the leader board. He did the wrong thing and so did the committee.
This looks bad.