Golfnutter: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

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Welcome to Golfnutter’s column – a weekly commentary highlighting contemporary golfing issues, in Pattaya and beyond. For more on matters golf, including this story, visit golfnutter.wordpress.com.

The first of this year’s majors, played out in the fading light of a classic Augusta play-off, had it all – including the good, the bad and the ugly!

The Good:

Not so long ago, the golfing world looked on in horror as Adam Scott stumbled down the home stretch at the Open Championship, at Royal Lytham & St Annes last July.  That stumble saw him drop from 10-under par to finish 6-under par and lose to Ernie Ells by one shot.  He had yet to win a major, and from this point many thought he never would.  The manner with which he conducted himself during the media grilling that followed was as courageous as it was dignified.  Internally, he must have felt crestfallen, shattered.

That Scott came back so quickly to contend in another major is of great credit to him.  That he did so in the manner he did – birdieing the 72nd along with the second play-off hole – against a previous Masters winner, says a great deal more.

His acceptance speech was gracious and oozed class.  Here was a gentleman whose first utterance, upon sinking what he then thought would be the winning putt, was “C’mon Aussie” as he high-fived his caddie, fellow ANZAC Steve Williams.  He, along with the other three Aussies in the final round, knew damn well that no Australian had won the Green Jacket.  They had managed runner-up eight times, but never won.  His first reaction, then, was for country, not self.  The Good!

The Bad:

For years the Masters has represented the pinnacle of what golf is about.  The legacy from champions past has only added to the game’s much admired association with integrity, honesty and adherence to rules, in particular, the Rules of Golf.  The running of this, the 77th Masters, may have changed that somewhat.

By way of recap; Tiger Woods’s third shot during round two of Friday’s second round, from about 85 yards out on the par five 15th, hit the flagstick and rebounded into the water hazard, front left.  The yellow stakes defining the hazard gave him three options – play from the designated drop zone, drop on a line from where the ball last crossed the hazard, keeping that line between him and the flag, or drop as near as possible to where he last played.  Tiger chose the last option, well, sort of.

Instead of dropping as near as possible to where he last played, Tiger actually dropped two yards back.  In an interview post round, he stated, “I went down to the drop area, and that wasn’t going to be a good spot as it’s really grainy there.  So, I went back to where I played it from, but I went two yards further back and I took – tried to take – two yards off the shot of what I felt I hit before.  And that should land me short of the flag and not have it either hit the flag or skip over it.  I felt that was going to be the right decision.  It worked out perfectly.”

The relevant Rule – Relief for Ball in Water Hazard – Rule 26-1.a. states; Proceed under the stroke and distance provision of Rule 27-1 by playing a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.  Tiger, by his own admittance, did not do this.  He didn’t do it because he thought he needed to take two yards off the shot.  Some would argue that this improved his lie.

The penalty for breach of Rule 27-1, in stroke play, is two shots.

The Rules Committee would eventually decide to invoke Rule 20-7- Playing from Wrong Place, which carries a two-shot penalty.  Rule 20-7 also states; Note 1: A competitor is deemed to have committed a serious breach of the applicable Rule if the Committee considers he has gained a significant advantage as a result of playing from a wrong place.  The penalty for committing a serious breach, and failing to correct it, is disqualification.

Back to Tiger and the what happened next scenario.  Sometime between the drop and Tiger playing 18, an eagle-eyed TV viewer allegedly phoned Augusta National to advise them Tiger had dropped in an incorrect place.  The officials at Augusta viewed the footage and took the view that Tiger did not have a case to answer.  They believed he had dropped close enough to the original spot so as to not make any material difference.  They therefore did not bother to intercept Tiger to ask for clarification prior to him returning his scorecard.

Hours later, they became aware of Tiger’s words from his post-round interview.  That the drop had indeed made a material difference and that Tiger had intended it to, about two yards in fact.

Houston, we have a problem!

After meeting with Tiger the following morning, the Rules Committee announced that Tiger would incur a two-shot penalty as a result of an incorrect drop during his previous round.  His score, therefore, would be altered and moved from 3-under par to 1-under par.  Alter a player’s score and not DQ him?  Unbelievable!

An official statement was issued followed by a press conference called by Fred Ridley, Chairman Competition Committee.  With many journalists becoming increasingly incredulous, Ridley struggled with responses to direct questions.  Confusion as to why Tiger was still playing after signing a wrong card was as high post conference as it was when Ridley started speaking.  His defence centred on the committee’s discretionary powers under Rule 33-7 as justification for not enforcing a disqualification.

Golf’s rule makers introduced this rule in April 2011, in time for that year’s Masters.  Rule 33-7.  Disqualification Penalty; Committee Discretion.  A penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted.

In an obvious attempt at promoting equity, the book of Decisions, Rule 33-7.4.5 defined the relevant condition; where a player is not aware he has breached a Rule because of facts that he did not know and could not reasonably have discovered prior to returning his scorecard.  At the discretion of the Committee, the player still receives the penalty associated with the breach of the underlying Rule, but is not disqualified.

The basic idea here was to assist players who unknowingly broke the rules but were clearly not seeking an advantage.  This is the rule the Masters Rules Committee invoked.  The discretion of the committee was to impose a two-shot penalty, not disqualification, even though Woods had sought to take, “Two yards off the shot.”

Ignorance of the Rules is still not an excuse.  The disqualification penalty still applies for scorecard breaches that arise from ignorance of the Rules.  Tiger broke a rule – whether or not he knew the Rule is irrelevant – and did so to gain an advantage.  The argument for disqualification is as strong as there are precedents.

So, what could possibly justify the committee taking the lenient action they did?

Perhaps they hold themselves partly responsible for not taking action when the infringement first came to their attention.  Had they done so, it would have enabled Tiger to amend his card and thus return the correct score, with the two-shot penalty added.  Whether or not this speculation is correct does not detract from the fact that their use of what is being dubbed the ‘HD Rule’, Rule 33-7, with its discretionary powers, has been used in a manner I doubt the rule makers intended.

One wonders if the Rules Committee would have applied the same leniency to someone other than Tiger Woods, someone inconsequential like a 14 year-old kid from China for example.

This precedent is frightening to contemplate.  The Bad!

The Ugly:

Unlike other sports, in golf players police themselves. They are their own referees.  Above any other consideration it is a game requiring integrity, honour.  It requires players to report their own indiscretions.  In golf, the final score is not as important as the manner in which it is compiled.

What would be particularly galling to the traditionalists, those that hold the game up as the epitome of integrity, is the way in which Tiger recounted on camera how clever he had been, in dropping his ball back two yards from where he last played.  As he reminded the golfing world, this was to take two yards off the shot.  And in case we still didn’t get it, he added, “It worked out perfectly”.

The controversy that this has generated has been considerable.  Notables such as Greg Norman and Sir Nick Faldo have publicly bemoaned Tiger’s decision not to withdraw, with three-time Masters Champion Faldo suggesting he, Tiger, should consider the mark this will leave on his legacy.

These sentiments were echoed by many, including Golf Channel anchor, former PGA winner, Brandel Chamblee, “Forget provisions for equity and inadvertent signings of scorecards, he gained an advantage and he knows it.  When you violate a rule, you don’t always gain an advantage.  But Tiger Woods knows he violated a rule and knows he gained an advantage – that’s what’s at issue here.  This has cast a dark shadow over his entire career.”

Conversely, others have sided with Woods’s decision to continue playing.  Fred Couples said the ruling was one of the best ever and that it, “Had set a fantastic precedent to protect players from unwitting mistakes for years to come.”

Graeme McDowell twittered; Take the fact that it was Tiger out of the equation and it is a fair ruling.  Since it is him the debate begins about TV ratings etc etc.

There is one major point the pro-Tiger views don’t address; Tiger, knowingly or otherwise, violated a rule through an illegal drop with the intention of gaining an advantage.  This fact, together with returning an incorrect scorecard, would normally result in disqualification.  In the absence of such a ruling, the player had an opportunity to follow the noble example set by principled players who have gone before him.  He should have withdrawn.

There is a new Nike add recently launched. It’s hitting the newsprint, electronic, magazine and billboard media with a larger-than-life shot of Tiger, dressed in his usual Sunday winning garb – red shirt, black pants – with the headline: “Winning Takes Care of Everything.”

That’s The Ugly!

Because of the ramifications involved, all this distracted from what should have been a wonderful celebration of achievement.  A marvellous victory that reminds us that good guys can and do win.  To Adam Scott goes the heartiest of congratulations, not just on his victory, but on how he achieved it.  He did himself and his country proud.

Happy golfing!