AUGUSTA, Ga. Tiger Woods steps to the first tee Saturday. Men and women scream and clap and tall people stand on their tiptoes. As Tiger strides down the fairway a woman shouts, “Concentrate, Tiger!”
He does. He ignores her.
Early Saturday morning Tiger’s impending disqualification or penalty feels like the biggest story in the history of the Masters if not the world.
But after Tiger birdies the first hole, the tournament assumes its customary rhythms. Fans eat inexpensive sandwiches, drink inexpensive beer and follow Tiger up and down hills steep and small.
The controversy began Friday when Tiger dropped his ball 2 yards from where he should have. The drop conferred an advantage and, of course, he knew he was breaking the rules. Elite golfers knock their balls into ponds, too.
Tiger had hit the pin on No. 15 and the ball caromed into the water.
“You know I wasn’t even really thinking,” Tiger says during the brief interview he consents Saturday after his round. “I was still a little ticked at what happened and I was just trying to figure, OK, I need to take some yardage off this shot, and that’s all I was thinking about. ...Evidently, it was pretty obvious I didn’t drop it in the right spot.”
At golf’s other three major tournaments, a walking rules official would have been close enough to tell Tiger he couldn’t drop the ball where he did.
The Masters, however, limits the number of people who can get inside the ropes. So Tiger took advantage of the favorable lie and continued his round.
Somebody watching on television, perhaps from his mother’s basement – which he refuses to leave except when she makes him – called Augusta National Golf Club to complain about Tiger’s drop. The Masters regularly gets calls from viewers.
“You don’t hear about them because most of them do not amount to anything,” says Fred Ridley, chairman of the competition committees.
I don’t know if Ridley is talking about the complaints or the people who make them. He’s correct either way.
The drop was examined by Ridley and deemed acceptable.
But Tiger acknowledged in an interview Friday that he didn’t release the ball in the proper spot. Ridley was informed of the interview Friday night. He listened to the tape and summoned Tiger to the club Saturday morning.
To disqualify him at this juncture would have been outrageous since the Masters was as guilty as he was. So it assessed a two-stroke penalty.
In the press center, the news felt like Armageddon, the biggest thing to hit golf since the last big thing to hit golf.
There was speculation Tiger would withdraw. By leaving the tournament he would raise his Q rating and preserve golf’s integrity and honor.
What’s more important? A. The perspective of outsiders, and to Tiger almost everybody is an outsider. Or B. The opportunity to play
“Under the rules of golf I can play,” Tiger says.
Tiger shot a 70 Saturday. He’s tied for seventh place, four strokes behind co-leaders Angel Cabrera and Brandt Snedeker.
If I believed in conspiracy theories, I would write that the Masters is NASCAR and Tiger is Dale Earnhardt Jr. and rules are written in beach sand or sand traps and if you ain’t cheating you ain’t trying.
Had Friday’s drop been executed by Thorbjorn Olesen, Branden Grace or Tianlang Guan, the penalty would have been the same.
At Augusta National, there are traditions like no other and one is that the club does not acknowledge mistakes.
But Ridley, who in real life is a real estate attorney and a golfer who in 1975 won the U.S. Amateur tournament, comes close.
“There’s not a day that goes by that there are not some things I wish I would have done differently,” he says.
Tiger probably would say the same thing.
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