AUGUSTA, Ga. - At this writing, patrons are streaming into the gates of Augusta National in advance of Saturday's third round of the Masters. They've paid hundreds, even thousands of dollars for their badges today, and since they've left their cell phones in their cars, they're blissfully unaware of the fact that Tiger Woods faces the very real threat of disqualification for a rules violation.
But you're not unaware. I'm not unaware. Woods isn't unaware. And Augusta National most certainly isn't unaware.
[UPDATE: Woods has not been disqualified. He has been served with a two-shot penalty but will play on.]
Put simply, Woods appeared to take an improper drop following a shot on 15 Friday which found the water. (See here for a clearer explanation.) There's gray area - about the only gray you'll find anywhere near Augusta National - but there's enough blood in the water to suggest the appearance of impropriety.
And since, for Augusta National and the game of golf in general, appearance is all, the club has no option: Tiger Woods must be disqualified from this year's tournament.
This isn't a referendum on the rules of golf. That's a discussion for a different day, the absurdly out-of-proportion penalties applied to rules violations. (Imagine if the NCAA basketball championship could be reversed if replays showed Louisville had traveled once against Michigan. That's the scale of what we're talking about here.) As Woods himself said on Friday when speaking of the slow-play penalty assessed against Tianlang Guan, "rules are rules."
Rules are indeed rules, and it's for that reason that Augusta National must make the tough decision, regardless of patron wishes, sponsor desires, or CBS pleas, to disqualify Woods from this year's tournament. The suggestions of favoritism abound at every turn in golf, and Augusta itself has an unfortunate history of favoring big names in controversial situations:
— In 2009, Rory McIlroy angrily kicked at the sand in a bunker on the 18th hole, a violation which would have meant disqualification, since he'd signed an incorrect scorecard. Augusta officials later ruled he'd been "smoothing" the sand, which is permitted.
— In 2004, Ernie Els, pinned in the woods at 11, sought a drop from two rules officials but was denied. But tournament director Will Nicholson overruled the officials and allowed Els the drop.
— In 1958, Arnold Palmer plugged a shot into the side of the bunker at No. 12. He was denied an opportunity for a drop, played the ball, recorded a double-bogey and then played another ball, on which he earned a par. That par was the score that ended up standing, and Palmer would go on to win the Masters. While players are allowed to play a second ball in the case of disputed rulings, they must do so immediately, not after seeing how the hole played out.
It would not be surprising to see Augusta National "clarify" the Woods situation in a way that allows him to remain in the tournament. [UPDATE: This is exactly what happened.] And certainly, this is more of a gray area than, say, McIlroy's "smoothing." Still, there's enough controversy here to warrant much further discussion.
Golf prides itself on being a game of rules, a game of honor. Bobby Jones himself, co-founder and designer of Augusta National, once received praise for calling a penalty on himself that cost him the 1925 U.S. Open. He replied, "You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank." Rules are rules, and if they don't apply equally to everyone, they're a farce.
Only the most frothing, irrational Woods haters would want him disqualified. Woods is the best, most popular player and storyline in golf, and every tournament, even the Masters, takes a step upward in prestige and popularity because of his appearance. And yes, DQ'ing a player because of an absurdly small rules infraction that gave him no realistic advantage at all is hair-splittingly absurd. But this is the stage that the game of golf and Augusta National have created for themselves. If there's no option for rational resolution - say, applying the penalty to Woods retroactively without disqualifying him from the entire tournament [UPDATE: Called it.] - then the lords of golf have no one to blame but their own Old Testament rules.
Those patrons now on the course at Augusta are going to be bitterly disappointed should the club send the most popular golfer in two generations to an early exit. But if they're true golf fans, they'll understand ... and they'll approve.