The 2013 golf season was about as eventful and chaotic as it gets, particularly in a year where Tiger Woods doesn't win a major. Trimming the list (and sometimes getting creative) to 25 stories that defined the year was a challenge, but slotting in the No. 1 story of the season was not.
At the game's biggest event, the most divisive and renowned athlete in the world came upon what many, at the time, felt was the most important crossroads in his career. For a 20-hour stretch, we were captivated by a complex case of the application of golf rules, and then larger debates about the integrity and career reputation of the most dominant and famous player in the history of the game. Phil Mickelson's charging Sunday round at The Open will be legendary but the illegal drop, and subsequent disqualification debate, involving Tiger Woods at the Masters is the No. 1 story on our 2013 countdown.
Rarely does the biggest story of the Masters take place before lunchtime on Saturday, but from the moment Tiger Woods' ball hit the flagstick on No. 15 just after 6:30 p.m. on Friday to his Saturday tee time just before 2 p.m., the sports world was arrested by this serpentine and incomparable story. It would have been a bizarre and dramatic circumstance for anyone in the field, but the fact that it happened to Tiger, at Augusta, while in contention, turned the meter all the way up.
It all started, of course, with the short wedge shot after Woods decided to lay up on the par-5 15th hole. Tiger had made his move up the board and into a share of the lead. As the ball was in the air, it looked like he was headed for a short birdie putt and sole possession of the lead. Instead, he got one of the all-time unlucky breaks and walked off with what we all thought was a relatively impressive bogey save:
After dropping … a couple (?) yards back from that original spot, and not the drop area, Tiger got up-and-down for the bogey. He'd stumble coming into the clubhouse, and finish 3-under, three shots back of Jason Day.
The unlucky break derailed a sure march to the Masters midpoint lead and was the singular highlight of the day. The cut was made and everyone retired for their regular Friday night rabble rousing or rest. But then, after an interminable day, some curious Jason Sobel tweets ignited insomniac debate:
A lot of talk about Tiger's drop on 15 possibly illegal. He knowingly dropped two yards further back. Differing views on if that's allowed.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) April 13, 2013
Obviously the scorecard is already signed. My inclination is that he's OK. But if not, could turn out to be major news tomorrow.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) April 13, 2013
There was chatter that David Feherty, not known for putting Tiger in the crosshairs, alluded to an illegal drop by Woods on the late night CBS replay show. But at that hour on a Friday, it was hard to find footage and few noticed. At that point, it just seemed like some late Friday evening conspiracy talk -- an overanalysis of all things Tiger. But it still kept the few remaining media members and fans awake as they scrambled to do their due diligence and even figure out exactly what rule-breaking we were discussing.
By dawn on Saturday, the story had transitioned from late night conspiracy chatter to manic review. It was not yet 7 a.m. at Augusta, and we already had the biggest story of the day at the Masters.
To review, in addition to using the drop area at No. 15, Tiger had the option of either a) playing the ball as nearly as possible from the original shot or b) dropping behind the water hazard on the line where the ball went into the drink. Because of the carom off the stick, that line was well to the left of where Tiger hit his shot. As for option A, it was Woods who likely implicated himself and set off the entire sequence, raising a red flag for the rules geeks and armchair refs with this post-round quote:
Well, I went down to the drop area, that wasn't going to be a good spot, because obviously it's into the grain, it's really grainy there. And it was a little bit wet. So it was muddy and not a good spot to drop.
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. And that should land me short of the flag and not have it either hit the flag or skip over the back. I felt that that was going to be the right decision to take off four right there. And I did. It worked out perfectly.
It was that self-implicating quote, where he admitted to going two yards back, that sparked the controversy over not only the legality of his drop but the additional, often blowhardy debate over whether Tiger Woods knowingly cheated and should have been disqualified from golf's most prestigious major.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the controversy is that the issue did not come up until late Friday night. Every single shot, drop, and practice swing of Woods is broadcast and analyzed, yet the Augusta National members running the tournament were likely all asleep at the time this became a public debate.
By 7:45 a.m. on Saturday, however, this was officially a thing where we lazily append "-gate" when word surfaced that the rules committee was now reviewing what most thought was some red-eyed nonsense. The discussion then moved from an illegal drop question to the disqualification debate, because if Tiger did not follow the rules, he should have signed a scorecard with another penalty and an 8 marked at No. 15.
At 9 a.m., we learned that Augusta National had summoned Tiger to the course, almost five hours before he was scheduled to tee off. We had now moved from conspiracy talk to the biggest superstar in the game, the one who was "back" and again the No. 1 player in the world about to end his majors drought, being sent home with 36 holes to play because he signed an incorrect scorecard.
By 10 a.m., we thought we had a resolution, as the ANGC rules committee decided to invoke the recent HDTV rule passed by the USGA. Tiger was dinged two strokes, but not DQ'ed for unknowingly signing an incorrect scorecard. Prior to the passage of that rule in 2011, Tiger would have been automatically disqualified. The press release from Augusta National stated that they were alerted by a television viewer, and then invoked Rule 33 and avoided the DQ of the tournament's biggest draw.
The two-shot penalty, however, was not enough for some members of the media, who appeared more crusty and cranky than the members of Augusta National. Golf Channel, which ignored the unfolding story during the early pregame coverage, trotted out pros-turned-analysts Brandel Chamblee and Nick Faldo. Both promptly stated that Tiger MUST disqualify himself, for the No. 1 player in the world had unknowingly, or knowingly gained an advantage and signed an incorrect scorecard. The two-shot penalty was not appropriate, and Woods was sneaking by via a new rule technicality that wasn't even being properly applied in this case. Chamblee, who would go on to have a much more significant row with Tiger later in the year, was incredulous and animated:
"This is going to be the most controversial thing that follows him around for the rest of his career...This is a flagrant, obvious violation. If Tiger has read the rule -- and I am sure he has by now -- it is incumbent upon him to say that he is in violation of [Rule] 26-1a and disqualify himself. Anything else, frankly, is unacceptable."
Later, Chamblee, fully worked up, went even further, citing the implications that a decision by Tiger to keep playing would have on his entire career:
"If he doesn't disqualify himself, this will cast a dark shadow over ... his entire career, for the rest of his life. This is a guy that at this point knows he's in violation of a rule and he knows how much power he has in the game and he knows the right thing to do and he hasn't done it yet.
And that's sad."
Faldo, who said Augusta's decision was "dreadful," was in step with Chamblee on the legacy discussion:
"He really should sit down and think about this and the mark this will leave on his career, his legacy, everything. He should really sit quietly with whoever he trusts -- [agent] Mark Steinberg, a few others, maybe Lindsey [Vonn, Tiger's girlfriend] as well -- and sit and just go, ‘Well, I would be doing the real manly thing to [say he has] broken the rules of golf.'"
While it may have been some standard TV barking from Faldo and Chamblee, there was a lot of momentum behind the notion and for a significant stretch that Saturday morning, it was a real question as we waited for word from Tiger.
Woods, however, swatted away the calls for DQ-ing himself and all plans were to play on and chase his 15th major. Tiger is not exactly engaging on social media, but he sent a series of tweets to issue his first public statement on the matter, "accepting" the two-stroke penalty ruling.
From there, the entire rest of the weekend continued to be surreal, with plenty of non-golf developments before Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera delivered their gripping playoff finish. Some highlights coming out of it:
- Faldo memorably and completely changing course after moving over from Golf Channel to Masters broadcast partner CBS
Two separate calls, one supposedly placed by anchor Jim Nantz, initiated the investigation, which Tiger did not even know about until Saturday morning
- The drop getting some weird Zapruder Film treatment
- Lindsey Vonn's ex-husband jokingly claiming to be one of the call-in snitches
Starting the final 36 holes two shots worse than he expected, Woods finished the tournament a disappointing 5-under. Had his ball stuck on the green next to the hole instead of bouncing into the water, he likely would have cleaned up a birdie putt. The four-shot swing from the water ball, and subsequent drop penalty, were the difference between his T4 finish and joining the playoff with Scott and Cabrera.
The penalty and DQ drama would persist for months following that early April Saturday. Caddie Stevie Williams would say his former boss and close friend deserved to be sent home. Jack Nicklaus would comment. Arnold Palmer would weigh in. The USGA would clarify and correct how the HDTV rule should have been applied.
Up until that shot hit the flagstick, Tiger was in total control of his game. His "comeback" was complete, and a Masters win seemed inevitable at the start of the week. Instead, he receded on the weekend again, a theme he would maintain during another major-less lost summer that featured repeated rules controversies. The unlucky bounce and incorrect drop may turn out to be one of the bigger turning points in the history of golf. It's certainly one of the biggest stories in recent major championship history, and the No. 1 golf story of the 2013 season.