When Tiger Woods’ approach shot on the 15th hole of Augusta National during the second round of the Masters Tournament struck the flagstick and careened into the water hazard, it created a splash literally as well as figuratively in the sometimes arcane golf rules universe. Although Woods signed an incorrect scorecard that did not reflect the 2-stroke penalty ultimately imposed for playing from a wrong place after his drop, he was spared disqualification after the Masters tournament committee concluded that its actions contributed to the problem.
After Woods dropped his ball in the fairway in accordance with Rule 26-1a, which permitted him to drop “as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played,” a television viewer reported that Woods might have dropped at an incorrect spot. Unbeknownst to Woods, the rules committee reviewed videotape and concluded that no infraction had occurred. However, the committee never notified Woods of the review or discussed the matter with him until Saturday morning, after his comments at a press conference Friday evening suggested he might have dropped the ball two yards behind the correct spot.
There has been no shortage of commentary on the issue over the past two weeks, with many observers claiming that Woods should have been disqualified or should have withdrawn. Some current and former Tour players and commentators felt that Woods got an undue break, and suggested that the decision was based on considerations such as a possible plummet in TV ratings if Woods, who was in contention and ultimately finished in a tie for fourth place, did not play on the weekend. (For an earlier analysis of the decision, seehttp://www.mynegm.com/golf/golf-writers-column/rosss-rulings/the-most-controversial-drop-in-masters-history/.)
Yesterday, the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, golf’s governing bodies, issued a lengthy joint statement explaining and endorsing the decision made by the Masters tournament committee. The statement clarifies that the committee’s decision was based on its discretionary authority under Rule 33-7 to waive the disqualification penalty in “exceptional individual cases,” and was appropriate because, had the committee been diligent by talking to Woods when he completed his round Friday, it likely would have reversed its earlier ruling and assessed the penalty for playing from the wrong place. Woods would not have signed an incorrect scorecard, and the disqualification issue would never have arisen.
The statement explains that there is precedent in the rules decisions supporting the committee’s decision. Rule 33-7 (like the Rules of Golf in general) incorporates equitable principles, and decisions have recognized that where officials or rules committees make errors that are later corrected, the player should not be penalized if he relied on incorrect advice. The difference at Augusta, however, was that Woods was not aware of the committee’s initial ruling, and therefore did not knowingly rely on it when he signed his card. Nevertheless, the statement concludes that the committee’s actions “created an exceptional individual case that unfairly led to the potential for disqualification.”
The Woods decision does not open the door to claims for waivers of disqualification where players misapply the rules and sign incorrect cards. The USGA and R&A emphasized that the decision involving Woods was justified based on the “exceptional” and “rare” set of facts, and “should not be viewed as a general precedent for relaxing or ignoring a competitor’s essential obligation under the Rules to return a correct card.” The statement also notes that “although a Committee should do its best to alert competitors to potential Rules issues that may come to its attention, it has no general obligation to do so; and the fact that a Committee may be aware of such a potential issue before the competitor returns his score card should not, in itself, be a basis for waiving a penalty of disqualification.”
In recent years, the USGA and R&A have been assessing the rules concerning score cards and disqualification. Two years ago, they released Decision 33-7/4.5, which created a very narrow exception to the disqualification rule where the use of technologies like HDTV and slow motion replays permit viewers to detect facts with respect to which players might not reasonably be aware. The statement confirmed that Decision 33-7/4.5 did not apply to Woods’ situation and was not relied upon by the committee in reaching its decision. The statement further indicated that the Woods decision will be addressed as part of its ongoing review of the disqualification rules.
Jack Ross is the editor of Ross’ Rulings. He completed an intensive PGA/USGA rules workshop and has officiated at state amateur competitions.