Sports Nut

Tiger Woods vs. the Golf Pedants

The silly moral grandstanding of those who want the world’s No. 1 player to disqualify himself from the Masters.

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods reacts after hitting the flag and going into the water on the 15th hole during the second round of the 2013 Masters.

Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

In 1968, Roberto De Vicenzo shot a 65 in the final round of the Masters, tying him for the tournament lead. De Vicenzo’s partner, though, marked him down for a 4 rather than a 3 on the 17th hole, and the Argentine golfer didn’t notice the mistake before signing his scorecard. De Vicenzo was forced to take the higher score and lost the tournament, because golf is stupid.*

Forty-five years later, golf is slightly less stupid, and that’s making a gallery’s worth of Bermuda-grass-huffing blowhards very angry. On Friday, Tiger Woods essentially pulled a De Vicenzo, unknowingly signing an incorrect scorecard. Rather than disqualify him—the equivalent of strapping Tiger into the electric chair for driving with a tail light out—Masters officials sensibly slapped him with a two-stroke penalty and allowed him to play on.

That’s not good enough for CBS’ Nick Faldo. “He should really sit down and think about this and the mark this will leave on his career, his legacy, everything,” Faldo said on Saturday morning, declaring that it would be “the real manly thing” to voluntarily withdraw from the tournament. (Faldo walked back those comments during CBS’ Saturday afternoon broadcast, perhaps because men in green jackets were standing off camera with tasers.) USA Today’s Christine Brennan wrote that “Woods’ refusal to disqualify himself the moment he found out about his mistake forever changes his reputation, and the game’s.” And CNN’s Piers Morgan wrote on Twitter: “Jack Nicklaus would disqualify himself in this situation. So would Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Come on Tiger, do the right thing.”

Given the self-evident wrongness of every position Piers Morgan has ever taken, perhaps there’s no need to press my case further. Even so, I’ll move on to a recap of Friday’s events. On the 15th hole, Woods’ ball hit the flagstick and bounced into the water, leading announcer David Feherty to shout that he’d been “royally cheated.” After a penalty stroke was added to his score, Woods took aim again, placing the ball a tiny bit behind its previous spot. A persnickety TV viewer quickly called this in as a possible violation. Masters officials reviewed it, decreed that Woods hadn’t violated any rules, and Tiger signed for a 71 on his scorecard.

A post-round interview, though, led 19th-hole ethicists to set their Stimpmeters to GOLFCON 1. In that interview, Tiger said that he placed the ball “two yards further back” when he took his fifth shot on 15, acknowledging that he knowingly didn’t place the ball “as nearly as possible” to the original spot. According to the chairman of the Masters’ competition committee, “such action would constitute playing from the wrong place”—a violation of USGA Rule 26-1. On account of this violation, Woods was penalized two shots, meaning the scorecard he’d signed immediately after his round was incorrect. So why wasn’t this golf scofflaw banished from Augusta National? Because two years ago, the USGA revised its rulebook, decreeing that a player need not be disqualified when “he has breached a Rule because of facts that he did not know and could not reasonably have discovered prior to returning his score card.”

Faldo, Brennan, Morgan, and the Golf Channel’s panel of tee box concern trolls (ex-PGA Tour regulars Brandel Chamblee, Brad Faxon, and others) believe Woods should disqualify himself from the Masters for two reasons. First, they think that the USGA’s revised rule—granting extra leeway for “facts that he did not know and could not reasonably have discovered prior to returning his score card”—should not apply in this case. Second, they feel that golf’s obsession with rules, and golfers’ enthusiastic adherence to those rules, is what makes the game special.

That first point, I will confess grudgingly, does have some merit. The USGA’s 2011 “revision to Decision 33-7/4.5” could also be known as the “HDTV rule.” In the age of high definition, a weekend duffer can now spot a potential violation from his couch that a player could never detect. As a consequence, the USGA has—in a rare act of humanity—decided that it’s not fair to DQ someone for an alleged crime that’s only viewable in super slow motion.

Here’s an example from the USGA of how the HDTV rule might come into play:

“After a competitor has signed and returned his score card, it becomes known, through the use of a high-definition video replay, that the player unknowingly touched a few grains of sand with his club at the top of his backswing on a wall of the bunker. The touching of the sand was so light that, at the time, it was reasonable for the player to have been unaware that he had breached Rule 13-4. It would be appropriate for the Committee to waive the disqualification penalty and apply the two-stroke penalty to the player’s score at the hole in question.”

But Tiger Woods didn’t just touch a few grains of sand with his club. After his round on Friday, he said that he’d moved his ball a couple of yards. This wasn’t just viewers calling him out—even if he didn’t know he was breaking the rules, Woods knew exactly where he’d placed his ball. “Based on the way the rules are written I don’t see how he’s anything other than a spectator,” former USGA executive director David Fay said before the Masters issued its less-punitive ruling. And even though Woods apparently didn’t know he was doing anything wrong—if he’d been purposefully cheating, why would he talk about it openly in an interview?—“ignorance is not an exception to the rule,” as Brad Faxon said on the Golf Channel on Saturday morning, arguing for Woods’ dismissal from the tournament. He continued: “We know that, and that’s the way it should be. We should know the rules and follow the rules.”

That line of thinking might sound reasonable if not for the holier-than-thou attitude that inevitably goes along with it. Golfers fetishize their adherence to the rules of the game, even—especially—the ones that don’t make sense. In 2010, Brian Davis cost himself a chance to win a PGA tournament when he called a penalty on himself for hitting a loose reed during his backswing. After the event, Davis was lauded for his honesty and compared to the great Bobby Jones, who gave himself a penalty in the 1925 U.S. Open when—out of sight of anyone else—he accidentally moved his ball a tiny bit. “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank,” Jones said afterwards, deflecting the praise.

This is a golfer’s sense of proportionality: hitting a loose reed is no different than putting a hit on someone. Golfers are the opposite of conscientious objectors—they do whatever the rule makers tell them, with nary a thought given to what the rule is or why it exists. It’s a line of thinking that leads a 14-year-old to get knocked a stroke for slow play, and to a guy like Brian Davis getting hailed for his scruples. Instead of celebrating Davis, his fellow pros and golf fans everywhere should have been outraged that he’d been forced to penalize himself for doing something so inconsequential. (If he hadn’t done it, you know some narc watching on TV would’ve called it in.) Brian Davis hit a reed with his backswing—a reed! He shouldn’t have been a hero. He should’ve been a martyr.

But this is a sport that too often traffics in self-congratulation, and that prizes tradition over fairness. Recall that the Masters’ rules police concluded that Tiger hadn’t screwed up, then changed their minds after he signed his card. For the crime of doing what the game’s biggest sticklers believed to be correct, Brad Faxon and his grass-stained ilk would argue, Woods should do the right thing and commit seppuku with his pitching wedge.

Quitting when he doesn’t have to, though, would just be moral grandstanding. For all of his faults, Tiger Woods isn’t afflicted with the pathology that so many of his fellow golfers share: the need to feel morally superior. After he finished his round on Saturday, the little-known John Peterson said that if he’d been the one to make an illegal drop, “They would have disqualified me.” Maybe so. But if Tiger’s fame saved him from golf’s pedantry, that’s not a crime against the sport. Rather, it’s a move that should be made more often, and a giant step forward for a game that doesn’t need any more Roberto De Vicenzos.

Correction, April 13, 2013: This article originally stated that Roberto De Vicenzo was disqualified from the 1968 Masters. He was penalized one stroke, which led to him losing the tournament.