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 disqualified from the tournament, because golf is stupid.
No, De Vicenzo was stuck with the score he signed for. As the vastly popular Argentine who won the previous year's British Open exclaimed, "What a stupid I am!" Playing partner Tommy Aaron was declared to be the guy you'd least like to have do your taxes.
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.
The relevant rules are these:
If a ball is found in a water hazard or if it is known or virtually certain that a ball that has not been found is in the water hazard (whether the ball lies in water or not), the player may under penalty of one stroke:
a. Proceed under the stroke and distance provision of Rule 27-1 by playing a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played (see Rule 20-5); or
b. Drop a ball behind the water hazard, keeping the point at which the original ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped, with no limit to how far behind the water hazard the ball may be dropped;
This was the very rare situation. Normally, if a ball struck precisely at the flag goes into the cross-hazard at 15, it's because it came up short. In that case, the golfer could choose between a) or b) and either drop it right where he'd played or walk straight backward to give him the ideal length. Woods apparently assumed that subrule b) applied so he walked back two yards so that his next shot would land two yards shorter. And he executed nicely and sank his putt for a bogey six. But b) didn't apply because the ball rebounded to the left off the pin, so if Woods wanted to play a longer shot he would have had to play from well to the left, where the angle was worse. So, he took the advantage by confounding a) and b).
Now, dropping the ball two yards farther back sounds like a minuscule infraction, but the advantage gained for somebody with Woods' stratospheric level of muscle memory is considerable. All he has to do is attempt to replicate the exact same swing and if he does, the result will give him a putt 6 feet shorter.
Clearly, Woods didn't realize he was breaking the rules, or he wouldn't have bragged after the round about the advantage he craftily gained from stepping two yards back. But, ignorance of the rules isn't an excuse at this level of golf.
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.”
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's how tournament golf is supposed to work. A player is supposed to learn the rulebook (what, Tiger is too busy reading Proust to have read the rulebook?) and then police himself because he will sometimes find himself all alone on the course with only his conscience watching. If he later realizes he broke a rule, he would have up until the moment he signed his scorecard at the end of the round to call a penalty on himself.
If the signed scorecard is to his disadvantage, as in de Vincenzo's case in 1968 when playing partner Tommy Aaron wrote down a 4 when he made a 3, the signed scorecard stands. If the error on the signed scorecard is to his advantage, he is disqualified.
If the player realizes after signing the card that he misrembered the rules, then he should withdraw.
Granted, that's a huge penalty that might, conceivably, keep the 37-year-old Tiger Woods from his life's ambition of breaking Nicklaus's major championship record, but that's how golf is supposed to be played.
That line of thinking might sound reasonable if not for the holier-than-thou attitude that inevitably goes along with it.
In other words: Who? Whom? Josh Levin doesn't like the people who like golf's 19th Century Scottish Presbyterian ethos.
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. ...
But this is a sport that too often traffics in self-congratulation, and that prizes tradition over fairness. ...
In other words, golfers should cheat whenever they can get away with it. Look how that ethos has made Wall Street such a moral exemplar that we all take their advice on things like illegal immigration as well. Americans loves a winner and weird WASP moral compunctions are so out of date. Instead of not praising a man for not robbing a bank, we should praise him for owning the bank and robbing the rest of us.