USGA, R&A clarify Tiger Woods’ Masters ball-drop ruling

Mike Ehrmann

Tiger Woods’ Augusta ball-drop fiasco is almost a month old but the debate about whether he should or should not have been disqualified or withdrawn from the Masters rages on. Besieged by questions regarding the matter, golf’s governing bodies issued a joint statement Wednesday that they hoped would clear up the matter once and for all.

The USGA and R&A blamed officials and the player for the snafu that resulted when the world’s No. 1 took an improper drop on the 15th hole during the second round of the Masters.

The essentials of what occurred are well-documented: Woods’ third shot caromed off the flagstick into the water in front of the green. He opted to drop the ball as close to the spot from which he struck his original shot. His subsequent statement to the press that he “went two yards further back” kicked off a Saturday morning of fevered activity that ended up with the committee investigating Woods’ actions and eventually assessing a two-shot penalty but not a DQ.

The complex issue involved Rule 33-7 and in particular, the 2011-enacted Decision 33-7/4.5, which allows officials to waive a player’s disqualification if said player was unaware prior to signing a scorecard of any rules breach. According to the joint statement, the so-called "high-def TV" Decision played no role in Woods’ case 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 scorecard.”

As for Woods, he “was aware of the only relevant fact: the location of the spot from which he last played his ball,” said the statement. “His two-stroke penalty resulted from an erroneous application of the rules, which he was responsible for knowing and applying correctly. Viewing the incident solely from the standpoint of Woods’ actions, there was no basis to waive the penalty of disqualification under Rule 6-6d.”

Rules officials initially determined, incorrectly, that Woods’ drop was proper but Rule 33-7 enabled them to allow Tiger to keep playing.

“In deciding to waive the disqualification penalty, the committee recognized that had it talked to Woods -- before he returned his scorecard -- about his drop on the 15th hole and about the committee’s ruling, the committee likely would have corrected that ruling and concluded that Woods had dropped in and played from a wrong place," the statement read. "In that case, he would have returned a correct score of 8 for the 15th hole and the issue of disqualification would not have arisen.

"The Decisions on the Rules of Golf authorize a committee to correct an incorrect decision before the competition has closed, and they establish that where a committee incorrectly advises a competitor, before he returns his scorecard, that he has incurred no penalty, and then subsequently corrects its mistake, it is appropriate for the committee to waive the disqualification penalty under Decision 34-3/1.”

In the end, officials determined they could have defused the fireworks that exploded from their rush to judgment.

“The Masters Tournament Committee concluded that its actions taken prior to Woods’ returning his score card created an exceptional individual case that unfairly led to the potential for disqualification,” said the statement. “In hindsight, the Committee determined that its initial ruling was incorrect, as well as that it had erred in resolving this question without first seeking information from Woods and in failing to inform Woods of the ruling.

“Given the unusual combination of facts -- as well as the fact that nothing in the existing Rules or Decisions specifically addressed such circumstances of simultaneous competitor error and Committee error -- the Committee reasonably exercised its discretion under Rule 33-7 to waive the penalty of disqualification under Rule 6-6d, while still penalizing Woods two strokes under Rules 26-1a and 20-7c for playing from a wrong place.”

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