Why Tiger Woods was penalized 2 strokes at the 2013 Masters

(Originally published Oct 24 2013)

At the 2013 Masters Golf Tournament, Tiger Woods nearly holed an approach shot on the 15th hole – only to have it bounce off the flag and go back into the water. Tough break!  A number of friends have asked me to explain the 3 strokes in penalty so I write it here for a wider audience.  Below is a graphic of the Augusta 15th green along with a markers for the where the shot was taken, and available drop locations.  The key point is that after the ball hit the flag, it did not bounce directly back toward the hitter, it went at an angle to the left and this changes the available drop locations.

Tiger Woods at Augusta #15, Masters 2013.

The USGA publishes the rules of the game and for today, we’re interested in rule 26-1, link, which discusses the players options for a drop after hitting a ball into a water hazard.  According to the rules, Tiger can drop in 3 places identified by black circles.  He cannot drop in the red-circle, but this is where he did drop and that is the source of all the chaos.

Legal drop spots – shown by number in the graphic

  1. Same spot as where hit the last shot.  Technically “ball as nearly as possible”
  2. Behind the water hazard, on a line (more precisely, a ray) originating at the flag and extending through the point where the ball LAST entered the hazard. This means it has to be on the same side of the canal as where the prior shot was taken and in this case, that location has a tree or is out of bounds, so it is not a candidate
  3. Drop area if designated and in this case, a drop area was defined so it was an option.  Precisely where that drop location lies on the #15 hole I do not know, but for today’s purposes, I’ve drawn it off to the right.  Key point, this option wasn’t selected, so it isn’t part of the present question

Note that for “2″, the line segment extends forever and the golfer may drop anywhere on that line so long as they are still on the course.  Reviewing options, the drop area was “wet”, so undesirable.  The original spot was not liked because it was a couple yards too close to be in Tiger’s sweet spot, so he selected a spot a few yards further away.

How Tiger got bit! 

NORMALLY when a golfer chips into the water right in front of the green, it “costs 2″ (The shot into the water +1 penalty) and you hit another from the same spot.  Or, you can back up as far as you want with a line on the flag. This however is not the rule, it is an abbreviation of the actual rule.  The abbreviation though “works” most of the time because the place the ball enters the water is usually directly between the original spot and the flag.  This means you can usually drop where you hit from, or anywhere further away, but this is only usually.

The rules don’t say where the ball entered the hazard, they say where the ball LAST entered the hazard and here, Tiger missed! In his case, the ball last entered the hazard AFTER it hit the flag stick.

Rules to your advantage

This going further back thing is not so well known.  It can though be very handy; for example trees are in the way.   Golf permits you to drop anywhere on the permitted line/ray and you can go as far back as you want, even past the tee-box!  With this, you can take the trees out of play.  Yes, you end up hitting a further shot, but it can be an easier shot.  This is 100% legal and knowing the rules can save you shots on your game.  This line/ray thing also makes it easy to back up a couple yards when you don’t like the lie where you hit a first shot into the water, usually.

That abbreviation though is NOT the rule of the game

The rules say to draw a line from the flag through the spot the ball LAST entered the hazard.  In tigers case, his ball crossed into the hazard TWICE.  First on the way to the green and second after it bounced off the flag.  In drawing the line/ray, Tiger mistakenly used the first passage into the hazard rather than the second and selected a position further away to get an advantage on his second try into the green.  This advantage is not permitted for 26-1 “a”, so it’s a 2-stroke penalty.

Interestingly, had the ball bounced off the flag directly back at Tiger this would work out to be a “same”.  The line/ray would go through the point of the original shot, but the ball did not bounce straight back!

Where things get complicated

Tiger completed the round, signed his card and turned it in.  Accounts say that the tournament committee were aware of the discrepancy before the round completed and decided that his couple yard movement was not an issue because they were both “same spot” as original.  That is, it provided no “advantage”, so the shot was the same.

BUT, in an interview after the tournament, Tiger noted that he purposefully DID select a spot further because he wanted the shot to be longer, to get it into his sweet spot for the second try, and it worked!    This triggered the rules committee, that he really wasn’t dropping in “same spot”, he was moving back on the line, but it wasn’t the right line!  Oh crap, what now!

The rules of the game say that if you turn in a score card with a score better than actual, you’re disqualified.  There is an exception added this year which was used in this case.  Good use in my view.

Twitter and news are abuzz with claims of preferential treatment.  Was there?  Hard to say, but here’s a counter statement that most golfers, most professional golfers, would have never been under the same microscope and their infraction would have gone unnoticed, even to themselves.

Also, the scorers following the group SHOULD have told Tiger of the 2 stroke infraction before he signed his card.  Technically, the golfer must ask for scoring assistance, so it falls back on the golfer, but really, would this same level of scrutiny existed for anyone other than the most watched name in the tournament?

Statute of limitations

The rules say nothing about a time limit of when a score card is “accepted” by the tournament.  At what point can a tournament no longer come back to say “you messed up”.  At some point, the score has to be finalized, or golfers will never be able to sleep at night as they recount every shot and every potential mistake of the day.

Right conclusion

The Masters and the rules of golf got it right, they charged Tiger Woods the 2 strokes for the violation, but he was not disqualified and was able to stay in the tournament.  His score was adjusted to be what it would have been if he had scored it correctly.  Above said, I am sure that Tiger Woods will not make this mistake again! 

Calls for Self-DQ

It is permissible for a player to turn in a score card with a score higher than what the tournament believes.  If they do, this score sticks.  With this, players can, and in the past they purposefully have self-imposed penalties that the tournament officials did not see.  This is consistent with the spirit of the game and it is a long tradition.  Was it appropriate here for Tiger to Self-DQ?  Debatable.  The penalty was imposed and Tiger was unaware of the proper score for the hole until it was imposed.  There was no chance to self-assign the penalty, only a chance to self-drop from the tournament, which really wasn’t warranted.

What should have happened

In professional tournaments, rules officials follow the players around the course and are available for in-round questions.   A small inquiry to the officials before the drop would have clearly defined Tiger’s options and would have saved him two-strokes and I’m sure, much anguish.

Given he didn’t ask, the scoring officials should have told him of his mistake and both could have assigned the penalty.  They didn’t tell him at the completion of the hole and they also did not bring it up at the end of the round before he could sign his card.

There’s blame to share, and the right outcome prevailed.

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