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"The Woods from the Trees": Who at Augusta obeyed the Rules?

The result of this year’s US Masters, gripping as it was, will for evermore be overshadowed by the appearance of Tiger Woods for the weekend’s play.  The circumstances of his survival have polarised golfing opinion from fellow players to the informed spectator. It must be beyond doubt that the prominence afforded to this issue was hugely increased by the identity of the protagonist. But was it complicated? In my view, it was not and the answer was straightforward. Here it is.

1. Did Woods breach a Rule of Golf?

As is well documented, he had a series of options. He chose that prescribed by Rule 26-1.a. ("the Rule”). That required him to play a ball "as nearly as possible [from] the spot from which the original ball was last played…”. He admitted, in terms, in an interview conducted immediately after the conclusion of his round, that he did not do this. The answer to this question is plainly ‘yes’.

2. Did Woods knowingly give himself an advantage?

This is, in my view, a key question (see below). Woods’ utterances (all of them) about the incident are unambiguous. He candidly admitted that, because of the fate of his first approach, he wanted to take "four” yards off his second attempt and accordingly dropped where he did – fully two yards from the spot from which the fateful shot had been struck. It is clear beyond doubt both that he was advantaging himself and that he knew it. The answer to this question is ‘yes’.

3. Did Woods know of the Rule?

It must be said that this seems somewhat unlikely. How many times in his long career in competitive golf must he have taken a penalty drop in these circumstances? Perhaps in the fullness of time evidence will emerge which throws light on this. He, however, immediately stated that he was ignorant of the Rule. But, since ‘ignorance of the Rules of Golf is no defence’, the question is in any event academic.

4. Did Woods knowingly breach a Rule of Golf?

Again, it seems somewhat unlikely that a professional golfer of his experience would not know that advantaging himself in this way would not amount to a breach of some Rule of Golf. He has not, evidently, been asked this question directly and, accordingly, (at least, not publicly) addressed it. His answer would be interesting.

5. Does it matter whether or not Woods knew he had breached a Rule of Golf?

In the end, questions 3. and 4. are redundant and it does not. All Woods needed to be aware of was the factual basis which led to the rule breach as opposed to the fact that this basis amounted to a breach of a rule. He admittedly and avowedly did.

6. Did the Augusta National Rules Committee do its job properly?

So much for the player. What about the performance of those who were meant to judge him? They released a statement on the Saturday of the tournament. It is revealing and bears some scrutiny.

They claimed that, having been alerted by a viewer to a possible rules infringement, they reviewed a video of the episode whilst Woods was playing the 18th hole. Having done that (and only that), they, according to the statement, "…determined he had complied with the Rules (sic).” How could they possibly have concluded that? Woods clearly, on that evidence, (the only evidence, in any event, which was ever going to be relevant), infringed the Rule. Any informed observer, alerted as the Rules Committee had been, could only have concluded this.

The statement continues: "After he signed his scorecard, and in a television interview subsequent to the round, the player stated that he had played further from the point than where he had played his third shot. Such action would constitute playing from the wrong place.”. This revealed the fundamental flaw in the Rules Committee’s performance. The player’s explanation for what he had done was a complete irrelevance: what was important  – and, indeed, wholly and solely conclusive – was what the video evidence revealed and what that revealed was that there had been a glaring breach of the Rule.

The next (and last) paragraph of the statement goes on: "The subsequent information provided by the player’s interview after he had completed play warranted further review and discussion with him this morning. After meeting with the player, it was determined that he had violated Rule 26,…”. The above arguments again obtain. What the player had to say was of no moment. There was no need for a "further review” and there was no need to speak to him at all: the evidence of the rule violation was overwhelming and complete, the day before.

7. Should the Rules Committee have invoked Rule 33-7?

It is instructive to recollect the circumstances in which this amendment in 2011 was introduced. The announcement of the revision on the R&A website (in collaboration with the USGA) is here definitive. It states that it was introduced "in limited circumstances…where a player is not aware he has breached a Rule because of facts he did not know and could not reasonably have discovered prior to returning his score card [Emphasis added]. It gives a committee a discretion not to disqualify in these ("limited”) circumstances. A graphic example of this (and, indeed, a catalyst for the rule change) was the Padraig Harrington case; (having placed it on a green, his ball moved a dimple and a half, unbeknownst to him but spotted by an eagle-eyed television viewer). The distinction is clear: the line separates cases where a player is unaware of the factual basis for a rule infringement, on the one hand, and cases where a player is aware of that basis but ignorant of the fact that it is an infringement, on the other. It is only in the former case that this rule can and should be invoked. The R&A announcement continues by instancing certain situations in a ‘Q and A’ process which makes this crystal clear. The Rules Committee, fatally, on Friday afternoon, blurred this distinction. They effectively admitted this, in the final sentence of their statement, and compounded the felony by announcing that they had waived the disqualification penalty because they had "previously reviewed” the incident and made an "initial determination” (see below).

More, they admitted that they had not conveyed this "initial determination” to Woods prior to his signing his card. So what in any event could have been the relevance of it at all? Had they told Woods of their "determination” prior to his signing his card, the position might have been different. Having made the decision, why did they not tell him of it? When Fred Ridley, the Rules Committee Chairman, then announced that it would have been "grossly unfair” to have disqualified Woods where his Committee had made "that decision”  – a decision which was not even conveyed to him or, for all we know, anyone – this was nonsensical.

This Rules Committee made a complete mess of the task before them. 

8. What should the Rules Committee have done?

The wording of the relevant part of Rule 33-7 is clear: it is designed to be invoked only in "exceptional individual cases”. This case was far from one of those. But, since the Rules Committee thought (wrongly) that they should have been exercising their discretion under this rule, what could or should have been the factors considered by them? There can only have been two. First, their incorrect "decision” whilst Woods was still playing his round that there had been no rules infringement; but this could not possibly have been a factor since this "decision” was not communicated to anyone – least of all, the player. The only other consideration could have been Woods’ position; but he had known precisely and, indeed, intended to do what he was doing, he had clearly and deliberately broken the Rule (whether or not he knew of its existence) and he had done this to advantage himself.

They only had one course – and it was obvious. Woods had incurred a two-shot penalty and had then signed his card for an incorrect score on the relevant hole. Rule 33-7 was wholly inapplicable. They should have disqualified him.
Related link:  Profile of Timothy Higginson
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