News & Opinion

Rules mishaps define another sort of Masters tradition

The Masters
Augusta National Golf Club, site of the annual Masters Tournament

From disputed drops to disproved scorecards, rulings have been embedded into the fabric of Augusta National and its invitational

Editor's note: An earlier version of this report stated that Roberto De Vicenzo would have won the 1968 Masters had he not signed for a higher score than he actually shot. De Vicenzo would have tied Bob Goalby, forcing a Monday playoff.

No tournament on earth piques public interest to a greater degree than does the Masters. Breaking news? Not exactly, as opposed to the notion that no annual gathering of the world’s finest golfers has produced a greater number of rules-related controversies and subsequent actions that affected the final outcome in one form or another.

Some of those violations were pithy, such as the one-stroke penalty assessed to 14-year-old Tianlang Guan in 2013. Guan, who may die of old age as the youngest player ever to make the cut at a major championship, was convicted of slow play during the second round, a relatively innocent bystander in a world where some tour pros need 40 seconds just to wipe the sweat off their nose, much less park a 7-iron 10 feet below the hole.

The incident didn’t prevent Guan from qualifying for the weekend, nor did it even come close to qualifying as the day’s biggest breach of the law. That distinction went to Tiger Woods, whose third shot at the par-5 15th caromed off the flagstick and into the green-front pond, which led to an illegal drop and a hell-breaking-loose scenario that likely will remain one of the most (in)famous in Masters history.

It wasn’t until the following morning that two shots were added to Woods’ score, turning a 6 into an 8. The penalty stemmed directly from Woods’ post-round comments as to where he literally dropped his ball – about 2 yards from the divot created by the unlucky approach – an intentional decision that proved naïve and costly.

Longtime USGA rules official David Eger was watching the telecast that afternoon. Upon hearing Woods say he had unwittingly failed to take relief at its nearest point, Eger called Augusta National and reported the transgression. There was a lot not to like about the entire matter; notably the fact that anybody on the grounds failed to recognize that perhaps the greatest golfer of all-time broke a rule in broad daylight, with millions of people watching.

Hey, 2 yards is 2 yards. Woods was just three strokes off the lead when his ball crashed into the pin, which doesn’t quite rank with the time his Cadillac Escalade slammed into an Isleworth fire hydrant, but there was plenty of long-term damage, nonetheless. Six long years would pass before the Dude in the Red Shirt finally claimed his 15th major title – 16 months after the PGA Tour announced that it no longer would field calls from well-intentioned citizens moonlighting as rules experts.

The Masters doesn’t fall under PGA Tour jurisdiction, however, meaning the club’s membership can oversee its invitational in whatever manner it sees fit. Eger certainly wasn’t wrong in identifying Woods’ error or contacting someone at the venue to blow the whistle. We’re talking about a tournament that represents the highest level of purity. If nothing else, the Masters has provided us with numerous reminders that the game does not police itself.

When Ernie Els hooked his drive into the forest left of the 11th fairway during the third round in 2004, it settled in a pile of discarded tree branches that promised little or no chance of recovery. The Big Easy was denied free relief twice before demanding to see Will Nicholson, chairman of the tournament’s competition committee.

Els argued that a bunch of dead wood should be considered ground under repair. Nicholson, one of the kindest souls ever to patrol a golf course, overturned the double denial, a ruling that went a long way toward almost making Els a Masters champion. If Phil Mickelson doesn’t hole that 18-footer on the 18th green the following evening, the golf gods still might have a hard time looking at themselves in the mirror.

It wasn’t a rules violation of any kind, but Mickelson was the instigator of an amusing dust-up with Vijay Singh while defending that ’04 title the following spring. The champ spent his opening round playing in the group ahead of Singh, who filed a complaint about the holes that Lefty’s hoofprints were leaving on the greens. It just so happened that Mickelson had switched from 6-millimeter spikes to those 8 millimeters long for a Masters that featured lots of rain, and Singh, who rarely passes on a chance to get angry about something, had a problem with that.

Hey, 2 millimeters is 2 millimeters. “After sitting in the [Champions Locker Room] for a while, I heard [Singh] talking to some other players about it, and I confronted him,” Mickelson said. “I expressed my disappointment with the way it was handled.” According to published reports, that disappointment nearly manifested itself in a physical nature, although cooler heads prevailed before fists were clenched.

Singh’s lone Masters victory, in 2000, included an ultra-questionable drop at the 11th after his second shot tumbled into the water left of the green. Instead of playing his fourth from the designated drop zone, an elevated area perhaps 30 yards back up the fairway, Singh settled on a spot barely off the putting surface, as if the yellow stripe outlining the hazard were actually red. The Fijian salvaged bogey en route to a three-shot victory over Els, although it was the guy who finished alone in fifth place who seemed to take it personally.

Woods claimed the next four majors by an aggregate total of 26 shots. His mash-up with greatness had some staying power, too.

Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington had run-ins with the rulebook during the second round in 2009. After leaving his ball in a bunker at the 18th, McIlroy had an argument with the sand and did something rather dicey with his foot – was that an angry kick or an attempt to smooth the surface? He was cleared of guilt, however, whereas Harrington received an extra stroke when his ball moved after he’d addressed it on the 15th green.

Jeff Maggert was leading the 2003 Masters until his second shot at the third, also from a bunker, glanced off the lip and struck him in the chest. He walked away with a triple-bogey 7 before carding an 8 at the 12th. Yes, that little par-3 can be quite devious. Even to untouchables such as Arnold Palmer, whose first Masters triumph (1958) was marred by an embedded ball behind that shallow green and a strong difference of opinion with rules official Arthur Lacey, who was no Will Nicholson when it came to charitable verdicts.

Lacey made Palmer play his ball from the plugged lie. Arnie made a 5, which did nothing to improve his mood, then announced that he was replaying his second shot, this time with free relief. He made par, of course, then finished his round while the greenjackets in the clubhouse tried to figure out who would be awarded the next emerald blazer.

“I told Arnold he should get a drop,” said Ken Venturi, who played with Palmer that Sunday. “That’s when [Lacey] said it was half-embedded. Well, that’s like being half-pregnant.”

Venturi eagled the quip, Palmer snatched his first Masters, and an icon would soon emerge from that soggy turf behind the 12th. To say Venturi was robbed would be a stretch – things were handled very differently 62 years ago – but to declare the longtime CBS analyst as snakebitten would earn him no better than second place in that department, either.

“What a stupid I am,” Roberto De Vicenzo moaned in 1968 after he was relegated to second place instead of an apparent tie with eventual winner Bob Goalby because De Vicenzo signed for a par on the 17th hole, where he actually made birdie.

Winner, winner, no Champions Dinner? As we all know, it’s a tradition unlike any other.

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