AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods stood on the practice green of Augusta National as the thin, early evening shadows crept across the grounds Saturday, the end of a long, long day at the Masters.
Tiger awoke at 3-under, then saw a text from his agent and was summoned to the course to meet with the competition committee. That's where [irony alert!] thanks to being forthcoming in a media interview he was docked two strokes for an illegal drop on the 15h hole Friday.
He was not, however, disqualified from the tournament, which sent some commentators and columnists into a frenzy. They either decried the decision or demanded Woods step up and do the supposedly honorable thing and DQ himself.
Of course he did no such thing.
"Under the rules of golf," Tiger said, "I can play."
He nearly eagled the first hole, wound up bogeying his way back to par and finally climbed to finish right where he was before the penalty – 3-under. He was so close on so many putts, though, that he knows he could’ve been better.
That brought him here to the practice green for some post-round fundamentals as the leaders slowly rolled in. About 4 feet from a hole, Tiger set two tees just slightly more than the length of a putter base apart. He then repeatedly knocked in a half dozen balls, sometimes using just one hand.
Eventually he, his agent, Mark Steinberg, and caddie Joe LaCava took a break from the work and complaining about a moralizing media member and stared into the sun at the large, hand-run scoreboard on 18. Just a few moments prior, Brandt Snedeker's birdie on 16 was recorded, moving his to 7-under. Angel Cabrera later joined him as co-leader after 54.
So the task ahead for Woods – four strokes and passing six players – is clear.
The fallout from Friday's mistaken drop, perhaps not. Tiger is no stranger to wild days, especially at this tournament, but this was something new.
"You know, [today] started off obviously different, but I'm right there in the ballgame," he said. "I'm four back with a great shot to win this championship."
That's a championship plenty of golf traditionalists don’t think he should even be attempting to win.
From former players to television analysts, Tiger was under fire for his drop on 15 after a chip hit the pin and rolled into the water. First he admitted on television that he dropped the ball 2 yards behind the original spot – setting off a second review of the incident that eventually earned him that two-stroke penalty.
Then, after not being DQ'd for signing what turned out to be an inaccurate scorecard, he didn't voluntarily sit himself under the strictest possible interpretation of the rules – he a) gained an advantage on a drop and b) technically signed a bad scorecard.
"I think he should [withdraw]," David Duval wrote on Twitter. "He took a drop to gain an advantage."
That was about as likely as all of Tiger's critics turning themselves into the local police for going 38 in a 35 and not getting a ticket.
It's nice that golf aspires to be a game of honor, and it certainly would have been a rather magnanimous gesture by Tiger, but to demand he quit – or criticize him for not quitting – is to take this entire pursuit way too serious.
The Masters made him explain himself and decided he could play. Whatever is supposedly written on some ancient golfing scrolls isn't applicable. And really, this is a golf tournament held in an exclusive and historically questionable country club. Spare everyone the integrity lectures.
"I was able to go out there and compete and play," Tiger said.
He said the controversy didn't affect his game; that once he got back to the course he was focused on his game. "I was ready," he said.
[Related: TV viewer gets Tiger fiasco underway]
Still, it was an unusual day. He had to come over at 8 a.m. and explain himself, again. His downfall was telling the media in the first place there was some strategy behind his improper drop. The Masters had previously ruled the drop appropriate, and only thought differently after Woods' detailed explanation on TV.
Then he had to worry about what the ruling was going to be. "I didn't know what was going on," he said. Once he was cleared to play, he needed to make up ground he didn’t expect to lose in the first place.
As the confusing, very fluid situation played out, it produced odd scenes such as Tiger putting on the second green as Steinberg stood under a nearby pine tree closely reading a transcript of comments from Fred Ridley, chairman of the Masters Competition Committee.
In the end, inconsistency and a failure to make many big plays left Woods on the outside of contention. He'll need to fix both on Sunday to stand a chance at a fifth green jacket. Four strokes loom large. With so many solid names above him, he can't count on a mass collapse.
If on Friday he'd just not innocently answered a question about his thought process on an otherwise innocuous drop, it would all be different. He'd be just two back and without the golf police barking about tainted titles.
"Fred and the Rules Committee had already made the determination that everything was fine," Tiger said.
That was then. This was Saturday evening.
Soon he was hitting more practice putts.
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