Rules are Rules*: The Average Golf Fan's Guide to #Dropgate


Happy Masters Sunday! While Phil Mickelson and Rory Mickelson are out of the running, many big names will be on center stage today: Angel Cabrera, Brendt Shnedeker, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Tiger Woods and, of course, Fred Ridley.

Make no mistake, on a day when the world will be plopping their proverbial butts on their proverbial couches to see who will slip on the green jacket, the 2013 Masters will forever be overshadowed by this mess created by the Green Jackets. By all accounts, Fred Ridley is a stand-up guy -- U.S. Amateur champion, Walker Cup participant and captain, former president of the USGA, rules demigod -- with some name recognition by golf die-hards before this week. This weekend he's a household name...and that's not a good thing.

Saturday's telecast, which already starts an agonizing hour later than it should (the retro-fluff pieces they run before the telecast are probably very interesting on any other day of the year, but they are like nails on a chalkboard when you're clamoring for live golf), launched with ten minutes of Ridley trying to defend the ruling with Nantz in the Butler Cabin. In a tournament where the rules officials lay in the weeds instead of following every group, the fact that an emergency press conference and damage-control lead-off were necessary was definitely not a good sign (plus, the officials were already in the spotlight after the Tianlang Guan's slowplay penalty/international incident) The best case scenario is the tournament comes and goes without incident, without us ever seeing or knowing who Ridley is, other than a guy you'd really, really want to have as a golf buddy.

I tracked dropgate closely starting very late Friday night and all through Saturday. I even set an all-time personal record by watching more than five minutes of the Golf Channel. I watched Ridley's press conference in its entirety. I dusted off my copy of the Rules of Golf.  Here, in my humble opinion, is a summary of what transpired:

Tiger took a bad drop and played from the wrong spot. He signed for a 71, but should've signed for a 73. Normally this would be grounds for disqualification, however his 71 was actually the correct score at the time, because unbeknownst to him, the Rules Committee had already reviewed the drop and proactively gave him the all clear. So by little more than dumb luck, Tiger did not sign for the wrong score. It was only after Tiger incriminated himself that the Committee reopened the case and realized that 71 wasn't the correct score. His score was then changed to 73.

Got it?

In short, the only reason that Tiger is still playing today is because the Committee supposedly reviewed the footage and said no harm, no foul. If this review hadn't happened until after Tiger had made his comments in the press conference, then they would've had grounds to disqualify him. If Tiger had said nothing in the press conference, but had later realized his mistake while replaying the round in his head, then the right thing to do would be to disqualify himself.

I use the word "supposedly" in the above paragraph for all of you conspiracy theorists out there. I have to admit that as I was watching the press conference yesterday, my B.S. meter was making small blips. Now I freely admit that this is primarily a function of me being a former die-hard baseball and college basketball fan who has seen my once idolized views of sport tarnished beyond recognition. I'm also a guy who has a hard time separating Tiger Woods the golfer from Tiger Woods the man. The tournament founded by Bobby Jones had to be one of the last bastions of purity and integrity, right? Don't take that away from me, please. There's no way the Masters would cave in the name of TV ratings and the almighty dollar, right? They wouldn't just fabricate this whole review story in order to create the loophole for the meal ticket to drive through, would they?

I want to believe Ridley's story that they reviewed the drop and concluded that there was nothing wrong. However, have you seen the video of the drop? In my opinion, Tiger clearly started with arm extended at "the spot" of his last shot, then took a full step back and dropped his ball. I just can't comprehend how somebody would review that footage and definitely say that it was fine. If anything, it would've warranted further investigation.

And guess what? Tiger was on the 18th hole when all of this was (supposedly) happening! If the Committee had just waited 10 minutes to ask Tiger about the drop, all of this would've been cleared up and we wouldn't even be talking about it today. I'm certain that Tiger would've given the same candid responses that he later did, the Committee would've said that's a violation, you need to add two strokes to your score, and we'd have a minor story instead of the major story.

So the Committee screwed up, and Tiger Woods is the beneficiary of their missteps.

We like to rail on the guys who call in these violations, painting them as dudes sitting in their recliners, bag of chips in one hand, Rules of Golf in the other, and 1-800-AUGUSTA on speed dial. My guess is the guys who called in are either other rules officials or other players, and that the switchboard lit up after that drop. I don't think the average viewer knows enough of the rules to recognize a violation or even know what to do or who to contact when they see one.

Couch potato or not, interestingly "the caller" might end up the one saving Tiger from himself. He may have cost him two strokes, but the timing of the call and the initial review are the reason Tiger is still in the tournament. If it happens 30 minutes later, he's DQ'd. If Tiger overcomes this four stroke deficit today, maybe he'll thank the phantom caller(s) (and Ridley) during the already awkward Butler Cabin ceremony.

Augusta Chronicle Photo Superimposed on top of each other (they didn't have the side-by-side lined up quite right, as seen by difference between 'first shot' and 'second shot' at the top):

The USGA created that Harrington rule a couple years ago to protect the golfer against these phone-in violations. The intent of Rule 33-7 was to protect the golfer from things he never could've known about, like things only discovered via Konica Minolta Biz Hub replays in 1080p. There's one problem though, Rule 33-7 isn't meant to protect players against ignorance of the Rules:

"A Committee would not be justified under Rule 33-7 in waiving or modifying the disqualification penalty prescribed in Rule 6-6d if the competitor's failure to include the penalty stroke(s) was a result of either ignorance of the Rules or of facts that the competitor could have reasonably discovered prior to signing and returning his score card."

Oops. This excellent post by Ryan Farb describes how the Committee incorrectly applied Rule 33-7, or at least incorrectly attributed their actions to Rule 33-7. The media, like most of us when we hear a rule expert start talking in numbers and dashes and slashes, heard Ridley say 33-7 over and over again and just ran with it. It wasn't until closer inspection proved this rule to be problematic.
[Actually David, there is a cure for stupid. It's Rule 33-7!]

However, as Farb points out, the Committee's actions were in fact correct, using a different rule:

"The appropriate term for this is "Committee Error."  If you look at Decision 34-3/1, the Committee is entitled to correct an incorrect ruling in stroke play provided the competition has not closed.  They may do so by either rescinding an incorrectly assessed penalty or assessing a penalty not previously given.  That is exactly what they did in this case, but the explanations given have been very poor in terms of the Rules of Golf."

And that part of the rule only holds up IF you assume what the Committee did constituted as a ruling. Is a non-ruling still a ruling?

So in the end, the committee acted within its right, did what they thought was fair and Tiger ended up with the same penalty that he would've gotten had they talked it out before he signed the scorecard. We took the scenic route, but ended up with a 'nothing to see here'. Now hopefully we can enjoy the back nine on Sunday just like every other year. Time to go sit my butt on the couch.


  1. matt said...:

    Here is what should have happened:
    Saturday morning or even Friday night it doesn't matter:
    Augusta: Tiger you might have a rules violation, can you walk us through your drop on 15?
    Tiger: I purposely went to my original shot and moved back 2 yards dropped and played away.
    Augusta: You do realize that is in violation of Rule 20-7 and you should have penalized yourself 2 strokes so you actually signed an incorrect scorecard?
    Tiger: Did you guys know this? Why didn't you tell me before I signed card?
    Augusta: We thought about it but we didn't. Sorry, but the onus is on the player. Remember Camillio?
    Tiger: You're right I played from the wrong spot and in turn I signed a wrong scorecard. The only Proper solution is for me to be DQd for signing wrong card.
    Augusta: Sorry Tiger.
    Tiger: I'm sorry too...

  1. Anonymous said...:


    I wholeheartedly agree with most everything you've said, save for the "stand-up guy" description of Fred Ridley.

    Most of us who were privy to the behind-the-scenes story at the 2004 US Open at Shinnnecock can never forget that it was Fred Ridley and Walter Driver, then co-heads of the competition committee at the USGA, who deliberately lied about the playability issue on the 7th green. They hung, Mark Michaud, Shinny's super, out-to-dry on the green's inability to receive shots on that Sunday. Michaud warned them, Tim Moraghan and Tom Meeks about the shifting winds and weather and recommended syringing that green. Ridley & Driver specifically instructed everyone to leave it "as-is" and of course, we know how that turned out. They then disclaimed any knowledge and blamed Mark for the draconian outcome.

    Interestingly, the powers that be at Shinnecock seethed for some time and quietly defended him and told the USGA that they'd never work with them as long as Driver or Ridley ran the show.

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