AUGUSTA, Ga. - Tiger Woods' pursuit of a fifth green jacket may have just gone off the rails.
Woods is facing a potential disqualification stemming from a possible rules violation committed on Friday afternoon. After he struck one of the unluckiest shots in his Masters career, an approach on 15 that hit the flagstick and bounced back into the water, Woods dropped a new ball and began playing again. However, it's how he dropped that new ball that's at issue. [UPDATE: He's safe, but penalized. Details here.]
Stick with us here, this is about to get rules-heavy. When the ball went into the water, Woods had two options: drop the ball in a designated zone, or hit as close as possible to his original location. Here's Woods' quote when asked about the drop:
"I went down to the drop area," he 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 two yards further back and I took, tried to take two yards off the shot of what I felt I hit. And that should land me short of the flag and not have it either hit the flag or skip over the back."
Seems innocent enough, but this is golf we're talking about here, where every motion in the game is governed by a dozen potentially round-threatening rules. In this case, the rule in question is parts a. and b. of the USGA's 26.1, "Relief For Ball In Water Hazard."
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)
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
In other words, he could have played from the drop zone, no problem. Or he could have played the ball where he hit the original shot. Or he could have dropped the ball anywhere in a line from the flag to where the ball "last crossed the margin of the water" - i.e., where it rolled into the water - stretching from the edge of the water to as far back as he wished.
In short, he appeared to combine a. and b., which you cannot do. Willfully moving two yards away is not "as close as possible," and Woods did not definitively appear to be in a direct line between the pin and the spot where the original shot finally hit the water. The penalty for an improper drop is two strokes. But since Woods already signed his scorecard, which would then be an incorrect one, he would be disqualified from the tournament.
Even a casual golf fan can understand the impact that a Woods disqualification would have on this year's Masters. The sport's biggest draw is on the cusp of retaking the mountaintop he lost to scandal and injury; a disqualification would be devastating.
But if he did in fact violate the rules, and there is reasonable (though by no means overwhelming) evidence to suggest he did, Augusta is bound by the rules of play to disqualify him, regardless of the impact on the weekend's telecast and the sport itself. This has already been a Masters marred by talk of rules application because of a slow-play penalty applied to Tianlang Guan; this decision, whichever way the ruling goes, will only keep talk (and criticism) rolling.
When asked about Guan's penalty after his round Friday, Woods issued what could be a prophetic statement. He said the decision to penalize Guan was "unfortunate," but "rules are rules."
Woods has apparently never been disqualified from a tournament. However, he has been penalized on occasion, most recently earlier this year at the HSBC Abu Dhabi championship. He suffered a two-shot penalty and missed the cut. The reason for the penalty? An improper drop.
Augusta National has issued no statement yet. Woods is slated to tee off at 1:45 p.m.
-Keep up with the latest developments by following Jay Busbee from Augusta on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-