Tiger Woods inviting a cloud of suspicion

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Barely a third of the way into the 2013 golf season, Tiger Woods has already found himself the focus of three different rules controversies. He's been questioned for his behavior on the course and, in effect, called a liar for his comments off it.

He was penalized two strokes for an illegal drop at the HSBC Championship in January, nearly got disqualified from the Masters after an illegal drop there and this past weekend was questioned for giving himself a favorable drop in the final round of The Players Championship.

[Related: Two marshals on the grounds at Players said Tiger Woods did not lie]

(And if that weren't enough, Sergio Garcia accused Woods of a breach of etiquette during their third-round pairing on Saturday at The Players, leading to a he-said-she-said exchange from four course marshals, two of whom essentially called Woods a liar, two who defended him.)

All of this leads to the question: Why is this happening to Woods again and again?

While it's certainly true that Tiger is the most scrutinized golfer on the planet, watched by millions every time he enters a tournament, it's impossible to ignore the pattern that's developing: that time after time, when given the opportunity, Tiger Woods chooses the interpretation of the rules that's most favorable to him. Each situation isn't a huge deal when examined individually, but within a body of work they matter, especially when considering where he's headed – straight at Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors.

Let's get this out of the way: There is absolutely no indication that Woods is cheating on the golf course. None. No golfer in history has been as closely monitored as he is. In an age where hi-def TV viewers can pick up when a ball rotates by a single dimple, there'd be nowhere for Woods to hide.

But there is latitude in golf, which is a game officiated by the players themselves. So it's worth an inspection when a player interprets the rules in a way that consistently benefits him.

Consider, for instance, the infamous "loose impediment" ruling from the 1999 Phoenix Open. There, Woods hit his tee shot into the desert alongside the 13th hole; the ball came to rest behind a one-ton boulder roughly the size of a dishwasher. Woods asked whether the boulder was considered a "loose impediment," meaning it could be moved without penalty. A rules official assented, and Woods asked members of the gallery to haul the boulder out of the way. They happily obliged, and Woods would go on to birdie the hole.

And we already have three separate events in 2013 where Woods' interpretation of the rules has come under scrutiny:

• At the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January, Woods (with the blessing of his playing partner Martin Kaymer) took a free drop after his ball was embedded in a bushel of vines. He was later assessed a two-stroke penalty for taking an illegal drop, and that was enough for him to miss the cut.

• After putting his approach shot into the water on No. 15 during the second round of the Masters, Woods took a drop behind where he hit his initial approach. That's illegal, and he was assessed a penalty the next morning. Only through some legalistic gymnastics was Augusta National able to find an interpretation of the rules that kept Woods from being disqualified.

• At The Players on Sunday, Woods hit a ball into the water in the final round on the 14th hole. Both Woods and playing partner Casey Wittenberg agreed that the ball had hooked hard into the water, even though Woods had turned away from the tee shot before the ball even hit the water. Woods took a drop well up the fairway, rather than playing back from the tee, where it appeared from some replay angles to have last crossed land.

You see where we're going here. In every instance, Woods was conceivably within the rules – or at the very least could claim to be acting within what he thought were the rules – but in each case he opted to err not on the side of caution but on whatever side benefited him. In one case, it got him sent home early; in another, he escaped that fate by the thinnest of margins.

Golf also has expectations for player conduct on the course, and yet Woods constantly pushes that boundary as well. His tendency for screaming profanities on the course keeps broadcast directors up at night. Crowding competitors on the tee, walking off the green and taking the gallery with him before his opponent has finished putting, standing in sight lines … one man's gamesmanship is another's poor sportsmanship.

This just-inside-the-lines style has become Woods' trademark, and it leads to a perception that he cares only about what benefits him best.

It's worked quite well for him so far, but as Woods resumes his march into golf history, we're entering new territory. Imagine for a moment that Tiger had won the Masters in April, giving him major win No. 15. Considering a sizeable faction (including some of his peers) believed he should have been disqualified from the tournament for the illegal drop, what then would we have made of his pursuit of Nicklaus' record? What would history have made of it?

It doesn't seem that Tiger considers public perception – his one public apology in the wake of the cheating scandal had all the warmth of a hostage video – which, of course, is his right. But while perception doesn't always match reality, it can serve as a pretty accurate indicator of what's causing the rumblings. In this case, it's Tiger Woods' interpretation of the rules of golf.

If Woods was under heavy scrutiny before 2013, it's only going to get more intense now that he is firmly back on track in his pursuit of Nicklaus. As Barry Bonds can testify, pursuit of a legend is hard enough; pursuit of a legend under a cloud of suspicion is a lonely road.

Unlike Bonds, Woods has it in his power to dispel any concerns about his approach to the game. But so far, he's shown little interest in doing so. He can certainly argue that he acted within the letter of the law. But can he credibly argue that he acted within the spirit of it?

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