Kwak: Rules are rules—except for Tiger

Tiger Woods and Tianlang Guan were both hit with bad breaks thanks to the Rules of Golf this week.
Robert Beck/SI; John W. McDonough/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — On the front fringe of the 18th hole on Friday evening, Jason Day stared down the pin some 35 feet away. Looking at a birdie putt, one that would put the 25-year-old Aussie 7-under for the tournament, he took his putter back and swung. At a nearby residence, the teenage talk of the town, Tianlang Guan, nervously watched on TV. If Day’s putt dropped, he knew he would miss the cut, and this dream he’s been living would be over.

But either way, there’s no question that the 14-year-old phenom had played his way into the weekend. He was just 2-over par on the day before being assessed a one-stroke penalty for slow play on the 17th fairway, a penalty so rare that the last time one was given was at the 2004 PGA Championship. He was understandably a little upset by the ruling, a source close to the family said, not to mention a shade confused. The group behind his wasn’t exactly hitting on their heels, and the gusty wind was making decision-making difficult for everyone, but ultimately, the teen took the penalty like a man.

“I think rules are rules,” he said Saturday, after he shot 5-over par to put him 9-over for the tournament. “I respect the decisions they make.”

Just a couple hours after his slow-play penalty had the Augusta press corps chattering, Tiger Woods hit an approach on the 15th green that took an inauspicious bounce off the flagstick and spun back hard into the water. He dropped another ball a couple yards behind his original position and placed a near-perfect shot just three feet from the hole. The problem is, in doing so, Woods violated Rule 26, which states he should have played “a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.” It was pretty close, yes, but in post-round remarks, Woods noted he consciously dropped behind his first ball, in essence indicting himself. After speculation grew intense this morning, Woods was ultimately assessed a two-stroke penalty for his improper drop.

What are the odds? What are the odds that within 12 hours on a busy, blustery day at Augusta National, two major rulings would shake up the game’s most orderly event? What are the odds that they would befall the world’s most famous champion and now the game’s most famous teenager?

 Observers were quick to connect the dots — to contrast how sternly the rules committee came down on the relatively unknown amateur against the apparent leniency they took on the superstar Woods. But really, Guan’s situation was different from Tiger’s: far more cut and dry.

Guan’s group had been warned on the 10th hole, and the youngster was warned individually about his pace of play on No. 13. After he switched clubs for his second shot on 17, worried that the wind might turn, he was penalized. That indecision was partly a result of his inexperience and his youth, unfamiliar with the ways in which pros can fudge the system. Guan and his caddie, local looper Brian Tam, would regularly approach the ball together. Most professionals will send their caddie ahead, so they can get to the ball first and get organized before the player arrives, which is when the clock starts. He can start calculating yardages and having reads ready ahead of time, but Guan and Tam probably didn’t know any better.

But the biggest difference between Guan and Woods’s situation was the question of communication. The youngster had been warned, had known he was pushing the rules and in danger of getting penalized. In Woods’s case, that communication wasn’t there. Fred Ridley, Augusta’s competition committee chairman, said Saturday that the committee reviewed the drop while Woods was still playing his round. They had deemed it a legal drop, but upon hearing of Woods’s post-round remarks, when he said he had dropped a few paces back, the committee had to reevaluate its initial ruling. Upon talking to Woods, who admitted he had tried to get a shot that wouldn’t go as far as his first, they essentially changed their minds and deemed it improper on Saturday morning morning and imposed a penalty.

Disqualification? No. Because the rules committee felt like it hadn’t done due diligence and hadn’t deemed it worth addressing before Woods signed his scorecard, Ridley said they didn’t feel it fair to disqualify Woods. They gave him an out, a way to stay in the tournament and go after his fifth green jacket despite the calls from analysts, writers, and other golfers for him to withdraw.

Under the shade of the big oak tree behind the Augusta clubhouse, I approached Hanwen Guan, Tianlang’s father, and asked if his son was upset by the ruling against him.

“He’s okay,” Hanwen said. “Rules are rules. Everybody has to play by the rules.”

Everybody? Even Tiger Woods?

Hanwan smiled and feverishly shook his head, as if to communicate: No, no—I’m not going there.

Indeed, no one wants to go there with Tiger Woods.