Sports lets us fill that all-too-human urge to tell people what they should do. We can tell the manager that he should have pulled the starter, the college star that he should not turn pro, the quarterback that he should have thrown the ball away. It is part of the fun of being a fan.
In that vein, many people have spent the last day or so telling Tiger Woods that he should (or should not) have disqualified himself from the Masters. Woods, on the 15th hole on Friday, hit a brilliant approach shot that turned out to be too brilliant -- the ball hit the flagstick and spun back into the water. It was one of those dreadful injustices that make golf an often disheartening game, and Woods weighed his options. The option he settled on was to take a penalty stroke and “play a ball as nearly as possible at the spot where the original ball was last played.”
Only, he did not exactly do that. He played the ball maybe three or four feet behind the ball, perhaps confusing this rule with another one. What followed was slightly confusing, but here’s the official version: Golf being golf, some rule stickler watching on TV called in to say it was an illegal drop. Golf officials then reviewed the drop and determined that while the drop may not have met the technical word-for-word standard it was within the spirit of the rule. In other words, they ruled it was close enough.
But after the round, Woods talked about the drop -- and he made it clear that he unknowingly and purposely broke the spirit of the rule too. He said he dropped the ball a couple of yards behind the original drop because it gave him a better chance to hit a good shot (he hit it stiff and made his bogey).
Now, if we are to believe the timeline, those golf officials were in a bind. They had looked at the drop and ruled it legal. But after Woods comments, they knew it was an illegal drop -- Woods had not played the ball as nearly as possible to the original ball.
They also knew that if it was an illegal drop, that meant Woods had signed an illegal scorecard -- he had signed for a score lower than he actually shot -- and an illegal scorecard means automatic disqualification. There was a lot of consternation over what would be done, with many people thinking Woods HAD to be disqualified and many others thinking that disqualifying Woods over such a minor point would be ludicrous.
Golf officials split the baby, they used the wide leeway of rule 33 (sort of a “in the best interest of golf” rule) and gave Woods a two-stroke penalty but did not disqualify him.
This is one of those nanoscale legal decisions that some golf fans will discuss like Talmudic scholars and others will find utterly ridiculous and pointless. I lean more to the latter, I guess. I still think it’s absolutely ridiculous that Roberto Di Vicenzo was not given a chance to play in a 1968 Masters playoff because he unwittingly signed a scorecard that credited him shooting one shot worse than he actually shot (his playing partner, Tommy Aaron, had made the mistake and De Vicenzo won fans all over the world by not blaming Aaron and instead saying “What a stupid I am!”).
What I find interesting here is not the rule or the ruling, but the opportunity the committee gave to Tiger Woods. At first glance, it seems like they just gave him the opportunity to continue in the Masters without any guilt at all. He could always say, “Hey, they penalized me … I’m just following the rules.”
But I would argue they gave him a hidden opportunity. They gave Tiger Woods the opportunity to disqualify himself, if he wanted to do that.
At first blush, the first option -- staying in the Masters -- seems the easy choice. Even with the two-stroke penalty, Woods is in contention. Woods trails Jack Nicklaus by four major championships in his chase of greatest player ever, and he has to know that time runs short. Every major championship counts.
But with this, Woods also knows that if he somehow does win, many will view the victory as tainted. Maybe he doesn’t care about that, maybe he shouldn’t, but it’s there.
But let’s look at the withdrawal option. There are advantages to withdrawing too. Woods is clearly trying to put on a better public face. It’s obvious. He is much more pleasant in interviews, much less hostile on the golf course. He lapses now and again -- old habits die hard -- but he’s clearly trying to clean it up and represent himself and the game better. If he had withdrawn from the Masters, and simply said: “I unwittingly broke one of the rules of golf. I did not mean to do it, but I did and the game is bigger than any one golfer” -- it would have forced his critics and cynics to look at him in a different way.
He chose to stay and play, and it fits his profile. Tiger Woods is about winning. Winning has forged him, driven his ambition. pushed him to towering heights and a few nasty lows.
I do wonder if he ever gave consideration to withdrawing. I’m not saying he should have withdrawn. This is what I mean about that human urge to tell people what to do. The point to me isn’t what anyone else thinks he should have done. The point is what he DID do.
But I find myself wondering if he considered withdrawing. He’s a longshot to win the Masters today. He has never come from behind to win a major championship, and this will be a particularly difficult comeback. He’s four shots behind not one but two excellent golfers, one a former Masters champion (Angel Cabrera) and the other one of the ten best players in the world (Brandt Snedeker). There are other terrific golfers like Jason Day, Matt Kuchar and Adam Scott between him and the prize. It will be a tough comeback, to say the least.
And if he doesn’t win, well, I wonder if he would ever look back and have a tiny regret. It has been almost 90 years since Bobby Jones called a penalty on himself that may have cost him the 1925 U.S. Open -- and golf fans still remember it. More than 40 years have gone by since Jack Nicklaus conceded the putt to Tony Jacklin to allow Great Britain to halve the 1969 Ryder Cup. People remember that too. Woods was given a great gift Saturday -- the gift to either stay and play or to be remembered for something larger than golf. He chose to stay and try to win the Masters.