The way the year is going, Tiger Woods might start carrying a laminated copy of Rule 26 (Water Hazards) in his back pocket in lieu of his yardage book.
Just when the controversy surrounding his drop on the 15th hole in the second round of the Masters tournament had seemed to subside, Woods found himself embroiled in yet another drop controversy after his tee shot on the 14th hole in the final round of The Players Championship hooked into a lateral water hazard. After consulting with his playing competitor, Casey Wittenberg, Woods dropped the ball outside the hazard approximately 255 yards from the pin. Some observers, including NBC commentator Johnny Miller, thought the ball crossed the hazard line much closer to the tee, and questioned the drop.
If a ball lands in a lateral water hazard (marked by red stakes), one option is to drop the ball outside the hazard within two club lengths (not nearer the hole) from the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard. If a player drops at an incorrect spot, he is penalized two strokes for playing from a wrong place.
Determining the point a ball last crossed the hazard margin can be difficult given depth perception and ball flight factors. Recognizing that precision might not be possible in all cases, the Rules of Golf defer to the best judgment of the player and his fellow competitors. Assume a player and a fellow competitor determine the relevant point, and the player drops and plays his next stroke from that point. Later, it is determined based on other information that the ball actually crossed the hazard line 20 yards beyond that point. Decision 26-1/17 explains that there is no penalty, on the theory that the player made an honest judgment as to the point at which the ball crossed the margin of the hazard.
Rules officials at The Players Championship applied the rationale of Decision 26-1/17 in determining that Woods’ drop was legitimate. Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules and competitions, explained that, barring any definitive evidence to the contrary, officials must defer to the player, his caddie, and other players in the group. “Without definitive evidence, the point where Woods’ ball last crossed the lateral water hazard is determined through best judgment by Woods and his fellow competitor,” said Russell. When questioned by officials, Wittenberg was emphatic that he had isolated the correct point.
The Rules of Golf presume that players adhere to the “Spirit of the Game” by playing with integrity and calling infractions on themselves. In most cases, play is conducted without the supervision of officials. In many cases, players must exercise judgment in applying the Rules. The resolution of the propriety of Woods’ drop at The Players Championship is a good example of deference to player judgment. Of course, in most cases $1.7 million is not on the line!