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Late Sunday afternoon, back nine of The Players Championship, and Tiger Woods was rolling. Up two strokes on the field with five holes to play, Woods had the game and the demeanor of a man in total control.
And then came the 14th hole, and just like that, another Tiger Woods drop controversy. Unlike a similar event a few weeks back at Augusta, however, this one was squashed within moments ... even though the evidence suggests it shouldn't have been.
The scenario: Woods hit his tee shot on 14 into the water running along the left side of the hole. He took his customary one-stroke penalty and dropped a ball at what he (and, upon questioning, playing partner Casey Wittenberg) said was the point where the ball crossed over into the water ... about 250 yards down the fairway. Thing is, a replay from the blimp overhead, which was at a sharp angle to the fairway, didn't appear nearly as conclusive, and in fact suggested the ball could have crossed the water's edge almost immediately.
The method for determining where a ball entering a hazard should be dropped is covered in the USGA's Rule 26, while the penalty for playing an improperly dropped ball is in Rule 20. Woods had three options (sound familiar?): play from his original shot location (the tee box), play from behind the water hazard (which, as the video shows, is just in front of the tee box), or play at the point where the ball crossed over the margin of the hazard. Did he do any of those three? Well, that's the question, isn't it?
Here's some video perspective on the hole and the controversy:
(Interesting sidelight: the guy who made that video? Filmmaker John Ziegler, who's dedicated himself to clearing Joe Paterno's name in the Penn State scandal.)
Of note is the way that NBC's commentators first describe the shot's arc as sailing out over water almost immediately. They then backpedal rapidly when Woods takes his drop. All except curmudgeonly, never-met-a-golfer-he-didn't-dislike Johnny Miller, of course.
"That Tiger drop was really, really borderline," Miller said. "I can't live with myself without saying that."
The PGA Tour, sensing an Augusta-style controversy brewing, issued a statement while Woods was still on the course. It read, in full:
"Without definitive evidence, the point where Woods' ball last crossed the lateral water hazard is determined through best judgement by Woods and his fellow competitor. If that point later proves to be a wrong point (through television or other means), the player is not penalized by Rule 26-1 given the fact that a competitor would risk incurring a penalty every time he makes an honest judgment as to the point where his ball last crosses a water-hazard margin and that judgment subsequently proves incorrect (Decision 26-1/17)."
That's a handy bit of tail-covering there, allowing Woods to play on because of the judgment of himself and his playing partner. Had Woods played from an improper spot and Wittenberg called him on it, Woods would have suffered a two-stroke penalty and could potentially have signed an incorrect scorecard, forfeiting the win. But the Tour's preemptive strike ensured that would not be a possibility. And Woods would go on to double-bogey the hole anyway, a score he could just as easily have earned by playing off the tee again.
After the match, Wittenberg was immediately asked three straight questions about the drop, and emphasized that he made the call the right way. "I saw it perfectly off the tee," he said. "I told him exactly where I thought it crossed, and we all agreed, so he's definitely great on that ... There is no doubt, guys. The ball crossed where he dropped."
Woods, on the other hand, enjoyed 17 gentle questions about the "theater" of Sawgrass, the "satisfying" win, and even the freaking World Cup of Golf in Australia before someone actually asked him about the drop:
Q. Considering what happened at Augusta, there was extensive commentary after you took your drop on 14. Can you walk us through the drop? Was there any debate about where you should drop it? Was there any wondering whether you were dropping it in the right spot?
TIGER WOODS: Yeah, I talked to Casey and the caddie, and we agreed that's where it crossed. Because I hit a pop‑up big high hook, so it started way right, and then it went way left. So it had a lot to room to it.
We decided it crossed there, and I played it.
When asked whether Woods considered consulting a rules official, he replied, "If they're not there they can't see it, so there's really no point. The only guys who really know are Casey and his caddie, so that's who we rely on."
On the course, Woods has never had a reputation as a cheater; his gamesmanship can at times skirt the line, but so do many other players, including other greats. But between Augusta and, now, Sawgrass, Woods can expect to be under scrutiny with every swing of the club. He's in the early stages of what could be one of the best years of his career. It would behoove him to bring along a rules official of his own for every single round from here on out ... just to be sure.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-