Of Rules, Rulers And Rulings

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | Jack Nicklaus summarized the situation and the event. The other majors, he reminded, are championships, The Masters is a tournament. What he didn’t say, and what we all have come to understand, a tournament of privilege and unique rules interpretations. Status counts as does reputation. After all, the name Masters implies a special standing, does it not? The men – and now, women – in the green jackets know how to conduct a golf tournament and also long have known whom and what matters. If Tiger Woods, despite the professed outrage of many journalists and some pros, was not disqualified from the 2013 Masters for what was seen as a breach of the rules, well, that wasn’t unprecedented. Far from it. The idea that self-righteous television viewers gleefully notify golf officials of violations, as in the Tiger case, is another issue entirely. Don’t these people have anything to do but act as snitches? The greatness of golf, in theory, is the competitors also are the arbiters. You don’t need a referee or umpire, because the golfers, out there somewhere in the rough or a bunker, make the call, or the proper drop. Tiger, however, we learned all too late made the improper one, after his approach shot at 15 Friday hit the flagstick and ricocheted into the pond. His candid comments on three TV interviews, talking about how he chose to drop the new ball behind the spot where the first was hit were an indication Tiger wasn’t thinking properly rather than attempting to get away with something. Why would he profess to being a cheater? Sure, a man who has been on Tour for 17 years, who indeed is adamantly opposed to anchored putting because it is not in the spirit of the game, should know the rules and apply them, but as golfers everywhere will affirm, the game makes us all crazy at times. Crazy might be the proper term for controversial decisions The Masters has produced frequently enough to be called a pattern, if only an accidental one. More than a half-century past, 1960, Dow Finsterwald conceded during the second round of The Masters he had hit practice putts on Augusta National’s greens during the first round. Because that was a two-stroke penalty, and because his signed scorecard didn’t include those two strokes, Finsterwald could have been disqualified. You’ll note I said could, not should. The penalty strokes were added to the second round, and he finished third. The most infamous Masters rules debate came in 1958 when the master of them all, Arnold Palmer, in the last round buried his tee shot on the par-3 12th in mud from an overnight rain. Palmer was playing with Ken Venturi, and asked for relief for an imbedded ball, which was not granted immediately. So as any individual of royalty would do he played a second ball. He took a double-bogey 5 on the first ball, a par on the second. The rules committee ruled in Palmer’s favor. “One of the club’s members came running down the fairway yelling about the decision,” recalled Venturi, of the pair reaching the 15th tee. The decision, “didn’t cost me The Masters but I got so mad I three-putted the green.” Palmer ended up with that par-3 on 12 and wound up winning, two strokes ahead of Venturi. It was 1967 when Palmer left a ball in a bunker and swiped at the sand in irritation. A two-stroke penalty for testing a hazard? Not at all, declared an Augusta official. Arnie already had hit the sand with his misplayed shot, so why would he need to test? No penalty. Forward to Rory McIlroy in 2009, who, irate, kicked the sand at 18, a violation that could have resulted in disqualification from an incorrect scorecard because he didn’t include the two-stroke penalty for testing the sand. But after an overnight discussion, it was decided he only had been “smoothing” the sand, which is permitted. In the context, Tiger becomes just another of the golfing greats who found Augusta’s rules decisions to their benefit. This isn’t to say The Masters people play favorites, but you weren’t about to see one of the stars get nailed with a penalty for slow play as did the wunderkind, 14-yearold Guan Tianlang. The man who created The Masters, Bobby Jones, once called a penalty on himself when no one else saw the violation. He said, “You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.” Now there’s an award in his name for similar displays of honesty. But whether Jones might have disqualified himself as the critics wanted Tiger to do is moot.
This is the 21st century, not the early part of the 20th. Outside forces are at work. The Masters is not exactly beholden to CBS and ESPN – rather it’s the other way around – but everyone is aware what Woods and the other top names mean to ratings, as well as competition. The biggest problem was the failure to respond to Tiger’s mistake, the improper drop, moments after it happened. Made the suspicious believe there was something wrong, whether there was or not. That The Masters contends there was not isn’t at all a surprise.


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