USGA, R&A clarify Woods' Masters ruling

Tiger Woods drops on No. 15 at Augusta National during the second round of the 2013 Masters. A day later, he was assessed a two-stroke penalty for an improper drop.

A joint statement issued by the USGA and R&A on Wednesday clarified the ruling that saved Tiger Woods from disqualification at the Masters last month.

Golfweek obtained an advance copy of the statement from sources familiar with the governing bodies’ review of the 2013 ruling at the Masters.

Since the 2013 ruling at the Masters, both of golf's ruling bodies had received various inquiries about the scope of the Masters Rules Committee’s discretion to waive the penalty of disqualification under Rule 6-6d ("Wrong score for hole") regarding a player's failure to return a correct scorecard.

“There's been so many incorrect interpretations of why this happened that it's not doing anybody any good with some of the things being talked about," said Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, explaining the association's desire to explain the Masters ruling.

Woods took a drop in Friday’s second round after his third shot hit the flagstick on the par-5 15th hole and ricocheted into the pond fronting the green. Woods walked up to inspect the drop area and then returned to where he had hit his previous shot before taking a drop, from where he proceeded to make bogey.

Because the hazard was deemed a water hazard (yellow lines) and not a lateral water hazard (red lines), Woods was provided with three options under Rule 26-1 ("Relief for ball in water hazard"):

  • Drop closest to the place from which he played the previous ball;
  • Play from the designated drop area;
  • Take the point at which the ball crossed the water hazard and drop from there, going as far back as desired.

Woods choose to use the stroke-and-distance option, which would require him to drop as close to the previous spot as possible.

When Woods finished his round with an apparent 1-under 71, he met with the media to discuss his play at the 15th hole.

“I went down to the drop area," Woods said. "That wasn't going to be a good spot, because obviously it's into the grain, it's really grainy there. And it was a little bit wet. So it was muddy and not a good spot to drop. So I went back to where I played it from, but I went 2 yards further back and I took, tried to take, 2 yards off the shot of what I felt I hit.”

Woods' statement eventually prompted the Masters Rules Committee to review his drop and ultimately impose an additional two-shot penalty. The committee spared Woods from disqualification for having signed for a lower score, a fate that many observers thought the world's No. 1-ranked golfer deserved.

In its joint statement, the USGA and R&A raised two questions under the Rules of Golf:

  1. The ruling that Woods dropped in and played from a wrong place;
  2. The decision to waive the penalty of disqualification.

The explanation about the drop under Rule 26-1a was perfunctory and was never in question, but confirmed that the rule was applied correctly, the governing bodies said.

The second question involving the disqualification was more complicated and clarified the use of Rule 33-7, but specifically Decision 33-7/4.5, a 2011 revision that permits waiver of disqualification when the competitor could not reasonably have known or discovered the facts resulting in his breach of the rules.

The statement explained that Decision 33-7/4.5 should be applied only in extremely narrow circumstances, which relates generally to the use of high-definition or slow-motion video to identify facts not reasonably visible to the naked eye, and was not applicable in the Woods incident and had no bearing on the Masters Rules Committee’s decision.

“Woods was aware of the only relevant fact: the location of the spot from which he last played his ball,” the statement reads. “His two-stroke penalty resulted from an erroneous application of the rules, which he was responsible for knowing and applying correctly. Viewing the incident solely from the standpoint of Woods’ actions, there was no basis to waive the penalty of disqualification under Rule 6-6d.”

The statement explained that the Masters Rules Committee's initial review of the drop on video tape and its incorrect decision that Woods made a correct drop ultimately allowed the committee under Rule 33-7 to waive disqualification.

“In deciding to waive the disqualification penalty, the committee recognized that had it talked to Woods – before he returned his scorecard – about his drop on the 15th hole and about the committee’s ruling, the committee likely would have corrected that ruling and concluded that Woods had dropped in and played from a wrong place," the statement read. "In that case, he would have returned a correct score of 8 for the 15th hole and the issue of disqualification would not have arisen.

"The Decisions on the Rules of Golf authorize a committee to correct an incorrect decision before the competition has closed, and they establish that where a committee incorrectly advises a competitor, before he returns his scorecard, that he has incurred no penalty, and then subsequently corrects its mistake, it is appropriate for the committee to waive the disqualification penalty under Decision 34-3/1.”

The USGA and R&A supported the Rules Committee’s unusual step in saving Woods from disqualification because the unusual combination of facts – as well as the fact that nothing in the existing rules or decisions specifically addressed such circumstances of simultaneous competitor error and committee error – that the committee reasonably exercised its discretion under Rule 33-7 to waive the penalty of disqualification under Rule 6-6d, while still penalizing Woods two strokes under Rules 26-1a and 20-7c ("Playing from wrong place").

But the statement was clear about future situations similar to the Woods incident.

“The Woods ruling was based on exceptional facts, as required by Rule 33-7, and should not be viewed as a general precedent for relaxing or ignoring a competitor’s essential obligation under the Rules to return a correct scorecard,” the statement read. “Further, although a committee should do its best to alert competitors to potential rules issues that may come to its attention, it has no general obligation to do so; and the fact that a committee may be aware of such a potential issue before the competitor returns his scorecard should not, in and of itself, be a basis for waiving a penalty of disqualification under Rule 6-6d. Only a rare set of facts, akin to the exceptional facts at the 2013 Masters Tournament as summarized in the previous paragraphs, would justify a committee’s use of its discretion to waive a penalty of disqualification for returning an incorrect scorecard."

The USGA's Davis concluded: “The bottom line is that he got what he deserved. He dropped in the wrong place, and to protect the field he got a two‑stroke penalty, but the committee should have talked to him before he returned his scorecard, or in the video figured that out, and that's why I think (Masters official) Fred Ridley and the committee ultimately went back and said, This is an exceptional circumstance, and it's just not appropriate that he be disqualified from the tournament.”

And if this were to happen at the U.S. Open?

“If those circumstances had happened at the U.S. Open, I think we probably would have gotten there,” Davis said. “But it takes a lot – it takes some very, very exceptional circumstances for all those things to happen.”

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