One year later, Tiger Woods' flagstick fiasco and illegal drop remains a Masters flash point

Mike Ehrmann

Would Tiger Woods have finally cadged that elusive 15th major if his ball had missed the flagstick on the 15th green at Augusta in 2013? We’ll never know, but the controversy endures a year later at the Masters.

Tiger Woods may be watching and tweeting about the Masters from home this week, but the injured world No. 1 is very much present at Augusta National -- nowhere more so than on the par-5 15th hole, his personal Waterloo in the 2013 contest.

Thursday, a day before the 12-month anniversary of Woods’ golf clang heard ‘round the world, Dustin Johnson had his own Tiger moment, though sans drama and controversy.


We’ll come back to DJ, since except for Paulina Gretzky’s fiancé adding to his legion of head-scratching plays, this is about Tiger and that infernal flagstick.

Indeed, long after Woods retires, should he do so without winning another grand slam event, his doomed approach shot to the green on No. 15 in last year’s tourney will carom throughout history as the one that sealed his fate as an also-ran in his lonely race to overtake Jack Nicklaus’ mark of 18 majors.

We’ll never know if Tiger’s world would have got so flipped-turned upside down had he not hit the flagstick and watched, with the same incredulity as everyone who witnessed it later in endless reruns, as his ball ricocheted backward into the pond. What transpired next seemed on the up-and-up: Woods took a drop and a penalty stroke, stuck his fifth shot to within four feet of the offending obstruction, and putted out for what appeared to be a bogey-6.


But, as with so many situations involving the tumultuous life and times of the 14-time major winner, things were not so cut and dried as they appeared.

Alan Shipnuck used the passing of a year since Woods' penalty to go all CSI:Augusta on the drama that unfolded hours after Woods signed for a second-round 71 and sparked forensic scrutiny usually reserved for crimes a tad more serious than an improper drop.

But we’re talking Tiger Woods, and in case you’ve been untethered from all modes of communication for the past 52 weeks, you’ll remember that golf’s most magnetic and polarizing superstar had the venerable venue buzzing after getting off to a strong start and taking a share of the lead to the 15th tee.

After hitting his drive wide right into the trees, he laid up, leaving a short wedge shot to the pin on the front left of the green. Then, clang, ball drop, dropped shot, onto the 16th and finishing three shots back of Jason Day -- until rumors of a possible Tiger DQ began rumbling well after the sun had set, and deep into Friday night.

Chatter that began as little more than a whispered conspiracy theory on Friday night grew in volume and magnitude as Saturday dawned. Before the first shot of the third round was fired, word spread that Masters competition committee chair Fred Ridley had summoned Woods for a come-to-Jesus meeting about exactly what transpired on the 15th fairway.

As Shipnuck summed up, a quick review of Rule 26-1 indicated that Tiger could have taken relief from one of three places: the drop circle, on the left side of the fairway, some 40 yards from the green; as far back along an imaginary line from the hole to the spot where the ball entered the drink; or "as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played."

Woods, who may have been confused about the ruling because of the angle at which the ball caromed off the stick, opted for none of the above and, unwittingly, blew the whistle on himself in a post-round press conference:

"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."

With Woods’ original divot easily visible to TV viewers, it was clear he did not drop a ball as close to the spot as possible, astonishing long-time rules expert David Eger, among other eagle-eyed TV viewers who contacted the green jackets about Tiger’s apparent error.

Initial confusion ensued about which rule officials used to assess Woods a two-shot penalty -- changing his six on the 15th to an 8 and his 71 to a 73, and putting him five shots off the lead -- rather than a DQ.

What followed then -- and continues into this week’s event (see: DJ) -- was heated debate (Jack Nicklaus, nay; Arnold Palmer, not so sure; Brandel Chamblee, furious) about whether officials should have disqualified Woods for signing an incorrect scorecard or the penalized player should have fallen on his 9-iron and withdrawn.

It remains to be seen whether Woods can ever outrun The Drop.

It remains to be seen whether Woods can ever outrun The Drop. There was the incident at The Players Championship after he pulled his drive into the water on No. 14 and incurred Johnny Miller’s wrath, his protested two-shot penalty at the BMW Championship when he argued that his ball did not move after he removed some twigs, and Chamblee’s infamous and inflammatory "report card," in which he failed Woods for his "cavalier" attitude toward the rules.

While there are those who will forever believe Tiger got away with one and others bound to defend the official mandate, Augusta chair Billy Payne on Wednesday sought to put an end to the debate without actually mentioning the incident in question.

"The issue that you're addressing, I think that we made the right decision," Payne said during his annual State of the Masters presser. "I believe that the golf world has affirmed that. I know that some of you disagree with the decision. Nevertheless, I think it is important that we communicate quickly with people, as we have a serious matter under deliberation, and we're going to do that."

In the end, Woods’ 70-70 over the weekend left him four shots short of winner Adam Scott -- or, had his tourney played out as it did from that point, the discrepancy between his eventual score and what could have been had he steered clear of that flagstick.

As for DJ, his chunked shot into the hazard at 15 may have bemused Shipnuck, but at least his penalty was relatively simple to understand, even if David Feherty had some trouble explaining it.

"For those of you that are wondering why [Johnson’s] going back here, and he’s allowed to go back, whereas Tiger last year was penalized after his drop," Feherty said Thursday evening, "this is a yellow water hazard, and where he last crossed the margin of the hazard is on the front edge of this hazard as we look at it.

"Where Tiger last crossed the margin was over ... on the other side of the water and Tiger dropped it a little further back, whereas he was taking the option of replaying the shot rather than keeping the last point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard between him and the hole," Feherty added. "And if that hasn’t confused you, I don’t know, it’s the best I can do."

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