ATLANTA — Five wins. No majors.
Yet the number that might resonate most for Tiger Woods in 2013 is three, as in rules violations.
Two were his responsibility for not knowing the rules.
He took relief from an embedded lie in a sandy area covered with vines in Abu Dhabi – except a free drop was not allowed in the sand. The two-shot penalty assessed after his round caused him to miss the cut.
Far more memorable was the Masters. Woods took an improper drop after his wedge into the 15th green rattled off the pin and into the water. The mistake was not discovered until after he signed his card – and after he said in an interview he purposely dropped it a few paces behind the original spot. Augusta National docked him two shots but didn’t disqualify Woods because the club knew there was a question about the drop and chose not to talk to him before he signed his card.
It was the third violation that was the most troubling. And oddly enough, Woods knew the rule.
He just didn’t think he violated it.
In the trees behind the first green Friday at the BMW Championship, he was removing a small branch in front of his golf ball when the ball moved ever so slightly. Woods immediately stopped what he was doing. He was certain the ball only oscillated. He went on to make double bogey.
Then his luck got worse. A PGA Tour Entertainment videographer just happened to capture the moment without knowing what he had. It was shipped to the office in Florida, along with the rest of his footage, where an editor detected the ball moving and notified the tour. A call to alert rules officials at Conway Farms followed.
And this is where it gets messy.
Video evidence clearly shows the ball moved – not more than a half-dimple at most, but it moved – which violates Rule 18-2a. Slugger White, vice president of rules and competition for the PGA Tour, had to look only once to see that it moved. Woods said he watched it “again and again and again” and he saw it only wobble.
The evidence was obvious enough that White assessed him two shots.
“It was pretty clear to me,” White said.
Woods stood his ground a day later, saying it only oscillated. From his vantage point, crouched over the top of the ball, that’s probably what it looked like. From the camera angle provided to the tour, it moved.
Imagine if White had sided with Woods, did not give him the penalty, and the video was shown on TV the next day. This would not be called “protecting the field.” This would be called “protecting Tiger.” It would have made Woods look even worse.
Not that he came out of this one looking much better.
“After seeing the video I thought the ball just oscillated, and I thought that was it. I thought that was the end of story,” Woods said. “But they saw otherwise.” He described his meeting with White as “a very good discussion – I’ll end it at that.”
Grousing didn’t make Woods’ case any stronger, especially in light of the video evidence. If anything, he allowed his integrity on the golf course to be questioned. That was never (or rarely, anyway) the case as he assembled perhaps the greatest career in PGA Tour history – 79 wins, 14 majors, 10 money titles (including this year).
But now he risks losing the locker room.
A few players privately mocked him during the final round at Conway Farms. “Oscillation” became a punch line.
Was it worth it?
Whether he likes it or not, Woods is held to a different standard, just as Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were before him in the television era. He gets more attention. He draws the largest crowds. He’s on TV more. His every move is scrutinized.
There’s no point complaining any longer that it’s unfair to use television footage to determine penalties. Everyone is expected to play by the rules – whether there’s a TV camera there or not – and accept the penalty, even when players unknowingly break them. It’s already in the rule book under Decision 34-3/9: “Testimony of those who are not a part of the competition, including spectators, must be accepted and evaluated. It is also appropriate to use television footage and the like to assist in resolving doubt.”
What’s worse? Someone calling in a possible violation from the couch, or an official ignoring evidence of a violation?
Golf is filled with examples – Jim Furyk, David Toms, most recently Cameron Tringale – of players who were not sure if their ball moved and called a penalty on themselves for a clear conscience.
Imagine how the other 69 players at the BMW Championship would have felt had they saw the video and learned that Woods was not penalized.
Did Woods gain an advantage by his ball moving so slightly that he didn’t notice? Of course not.
But the Rules of Golf are not based on an advantage. In this case, it’s abiding by one of fundamental principles of the game – play the ball as it lies.