Tiger Woods entered the Masters Tournament with perhaps his best chance at a major championship victory in the past five years. He didn’t win, and golf analysts said he left with a mark against his reputation.
Woods’s game rebounded this year since a 2009 car accident that led to his admission of serial infidelity and resulted in a personal and golfing decline. He finished tied for fourth, unable to collect his fifth Masters title as Adam Scott became the first Australian to win. Woods’s two-stroke penalty for a rules violation and his decision not to withdraw might be remembered more than his performance.
The potential damage to Woods’s golfing integrity in a sport that values fair play is more significant than his fourth-place finish at Augusta National Golf Club, said former PGA Tour player Brandel Chamblee, now a Golf Channel analyst.
“Ignorance is not an excuse, so I thought the right thing for Tiger Woods to do was to withdraw,” Chamblee said in an interview yesterday at the Augusta, Georgia, club. “The onus was on him.”
After the second round, Woods was assessed a two-stroke penalty by the rules committee when he said during a press conference that he intentionally dropped his ball two yards behind the original location after he hit it into water. It was his third shot on the par-5 15th hole, and it caromed off of the flag stick and into a pond in front of the green.
The committee had initially cleared Woods of any wrongdoing during the round after a television viewer reported the infraction. The incident was reviewed again after Woods said he dropped the ball further back to assure his next attempt would land short of the flag, a violation of a rule that states the ball must be dropped “as near as possible” to the original location.
“It certainly was not as close as the rule says,” Woods said after his final round.
Once he had been cleared to play, Woods said he never considered withdrawing. Had he dropped out, the move would have drawn strong support in the golf community, Chamblee said.
“He would have been universally lauded,” he said. “Everybody that I’ve talked to thinks as much. That to me is the fine point. If he were to go on to win, the win would raise more questions than answers. There would be an asterisk.”
Golf has a history of players calling penalties on themselves, including Masters co-founder Bobby Jones. Chamblee recounted how in the 1925 U.S. Open, Jones called a penalty on himself when his ball moved while he prepared to hit a shot. At the time, rules officials and playing partner Walter Hagen tried to talk him out of it. The penalty resulted in a 36-hole playoff, which Jones lost to Willie MacFarlane.
Had Woods’s shot not ricocheted into the water, the 14-time major winner said he probably would have birdied the 15th hole in the second round. Without a one-stroke penalty for hitting the ball in the water and the additional two-shot penalty, Woods would have entered the final round tied for the lead.
After a final-round 2-under-par 70, Woods finished four shots out of a playoff between Scott and Angel Cabrera of Argentina and said he didn’t think about what could have been.
“We could do that ‘what if’ in every tournament we lose,” Woods told reporters. “We lose more tournaments than we win out here.”
Woods’s game and personal life has rebounded since the 2009 scandal, when his admission resulted in a divorce and in the subsequent fallout he lost sponsors including AT&T Inc, and Accenture Plc. He fell to No. 58 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He’s No. 1 now, won three tournaments this year, and he and World Cup and Olympic champion skier Lindsey Vonn announced they were in a relationship.
Scott, 32, prevailed with a 12-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole after he and Cabrera had birdied the 18th hole in regulation to force a playoff. Scott, with Woods’s former caddie Steve Williams carrying his golf bag, prevailed nine months after his runner-up finish to Ernie Els in the British Open.
Nick Faldo, a three-time Masters winner, was among those who had called for Woods to do what he called the “manly” thing and withdraw.
Faldo pointed to current PGA Tour player Brian Davis of England, who penalized himself during a playoff at a 2010 event in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Davis said he saw a reed move slightly as he hit a shot out of a hazard, a rules violation. Davis alerted an official and asked him to review video of the shot, which confirmed Davis’s suspicion. The ensuing two-stroke penalty ended the playoff and Davis is still winless in the U.S.
“We’ve done this for years, all of us,” Faldo said on the Golf Channel during third-round play. “We’ve all policed ourselves. That’s the most wonderful thing about this game of golf. Sometimes the black and white is harsh, but I think Tiger would gain massive brownie points if he stood up and said, ‘You know, you’re right, guys, I clearly have broken the rules. And I’ll walk, I’ll see you next week.’”
In 2011, the U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient Golf Club, golf’s governing bodies, announced a new interpretation of rule 33-7/4.5 -- in which a player is disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. The change applies in “limited circumstances” where disqualifications are caused by scorecard errors resulting from video review. That revision helped Woods avoid disqualification.
The groups said the change addressed the situation where a player is not aware he’s breached a rule “because of facts that he did not know and could not reasonably have discovered prior to turning in his scorecard.” At the discretion of the tournament committee, the player is still penalized, but isn’t disqualified.
However, the disqualification penalty would still apply for scorecard breaches that arise from ignorance of the rules of golf.
“This is not a difficult rule and everybody knows it,” Chamblee said. “Tiger was clearly ignorant of the rule or he wouldn’t have been talking about it.”