As a high school golf coach, I have thirteen young men who love golf and idolize players like Tiger Woods who play professionally on the PGA Tour. I would have taken ten minutes during our practice on Monday to point out the great demonstration of integrity that Woods displayed by removing himself from the tournament.
Instead, on Monday, I told them the truth as I see it: I told them I’m disappointed in Woods for not proving to them that he’s different. I told them to learn the rules and to follow them. I told them to use Tiger’s decision as a teaching moment…that no one round of golf or one title is more important than your role as the player who is fortunate enough to influence young men and women across the globe who follow your every move on the golf course.
Here’s my own horror story with the rules of golf and the set of circumstances that I encountered four years ago. I’m not bringing this up to say “look what I did”. I’m bringing it up to show how easy it is to screw up and how easy it is to just say “I screwed up.”
I was playing in the Middle Atlantic Amateur in 2009 at Belle Haven CC in Alexandria, VA. In my first round, I played the par-3 sixth hole and hit my ball on the green, but it spun back and went into the water guarding the front of the putting surface. I was playing a Titleist golf ball with a blue “E” (for my son, Ethan) written next to the number 2. Having seen my ball spin back into the water, I played my next shot from a drop area some 100 yards from the green, but prior to playing the shot, I said to my playing competitors, “This is a number 2 as well, but the markings are red instead of blue.” I showed them the ball and hit the next shot on the green.
Once on the green, I stood some ten feet or so from the hole and watched my other two competitors in the group play their second shots when the rules official/marshal who was walking the 18 holes with us approached me from behind and gently placed my ball that was in the water in my hand. “Here,” he whispered, “They’re too expensive to just leave in the water like that.” I turned around and thanked him and slid the ball into my pocket. One of my competitors hit a poor second shot from just off the green and his next shot took him a minute or two to survey from above the hole. Finally, it was my turn to putt. I was thrilled to roll my ten footer in for a hard earned bogey-four. “No damage done there, it’s only a bogey,” I thought as I reached down to pick up my ball from the hole. As I picked the ball out of the hole, I noticed the “E” was nearly worn off the ball from the early morning dew that was still on the course. I remember thinking to myself, “That’s odd…” and on the 7th tee I took out my blue marker and went back over the “E” so it stood out again.
I hit a nice drive at #7 and walked out to get my ball. From a few feet away, I saw a ball with red markings on it. That wasn’t mine. I saw another ball slightly ahead of that one. It had a black line under the word “Titleist”. That wasn’t mine, either. The other drive was in the left rough. I was confused. One of my playing competitors looked at the first ball in the fairway and said, “I think this is yours…red #2 with an “E” on it, right?”
“Right. Red #2 with an “E” on it…that’s me,” I thought as I walked over and saw that it was, in fact, my golf ball.
Then it hit me.
I had finished the previous hole with my ORIGINAL ball that went into the water. The blue #2 with “E” on it. The one the marshal slipped in my hand after I hit the red #2 on the green from the drop zone. I hit the “blue ball” in the water. I dropped the “red ball” in the drop zone and played it to the green. I needed to continue playing the hole with the “red ball”, the one that was “in play” on the hole. In the aftermath of the lengthy time it took my playing competitors to play up to the green, I completely forgot about the fact I had to play the Titleist #2 with red markings. I had simply reached into the wrong pocket, grabbed the ball with blue markings, and putted it in.
But I didn’t realize it at the time. I was so happy to escape with a bogey-four, I marched off to the next hole thrilled to be +1 for the first six holes.
Then, without announcing I had changed balls, I played the red ball off the #7 tee.
I had no idea what to do, but I knew I was in big trouble.
Remarkably, with that swirling through my mind for the next three hours, I was able to play the first 17 holes in +4 for the day. Honestly, the biggest reason why I probably played so well is I knew from the moment it happened that I was going to be disqualified once I brought up the issue to the rules committee. In a weird way, it allowed me to play much more freely over the final twelve holes, knowing I was basically “playing for nothing”.
Walking off the 18th tee, I said to the rules official walking with us (yes, the guy who slipped me the ball), “Hey Richard, I think we have a problem.”
I then told him what happened as we walked up the fairway. “I played the wrong ball at the 6th hole. I didn’t finish the hole with the ball that was in play.” I went through the entire process of how I discovered it.
“Are you 100% positive that’s what happened?” he asked.
“No question about it,” I replied.
“I think that’s a DQ, Drew, but let’s check it out and make sure when we get in,” he said.
I figured that.
He was beside himself with grief, saying, “I shouldn’t have given you the ball until the hole was finished. This is completely my fault.”
But it wasn’t his fault.
He was just being nice by giving me my ball that was in the water.
It was my fault for not paying more attention.
I’m responsible for my golf ball. He’s wasn’t.
Afterwards, Maryland State Golf Association officials were perplexed about the ruling. They even called the USGA to ask about the penalty since they’d never encountered something like it before.
While I was eating lunch, they informed me I was disqualified.
I expected it. I had earned it, in fact.
I felt foolish explaining to my friends how I got disqualified from a great event like the Middle Atlantic Amateur. But it happened. I wasn’t trying to cheat. I just screwed up.
So, I just told the truth. I had one golf ball in my right pocket and one in my left pocket that was given to me by the rules official who had fished it out of the pond. I goofed up and put the wrong ball in play. And then I realized it on the 7th hole when the red Titleist ball suddenly showed up again.
All Tiger had to do on Saturday morning was tell the truth.
“I screwed up on Friday. It’s golf. There are a lot of rules. And those rules require precision and knowing them to the letter. I, unfortunately, didn’t follow the drop rule to the letter. I certainly wasn’t trying to cheat. I just didn’t know the rules well enough.”
That, clearly, would have been the truth. Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer on planet Earth, didn’t know a simple drop rule in the Masters. It was either that, or, he was trying to circumvent the rules which, of course, is code word for “cheating”. Tiger Woods isn’t a cheater in golf. And as the great Seve Ballesteros said to Paul Azinger after a rules snafu in the 1991 Ryder Cup when Azinger and Chip Beck played the wrong ball in an alternate shot competition: “Cheating and not knowing the rules…those are two totally separate things.”
Woods could have captured the golfing world on Saturday by saying, “I can’t continue playing in this year’s Masters.”
He then could have followed that up by simply saying, “I think the right thing to do now is to withdraw from the event given these extraordinary circumstances. While the Augusta officials are willing to let me play, I think it’s best that I don’t given that I signed an incorrect scorecard following my second round.”
That’s what the best player in the world should do when he’s in charge of setting the bar.
Instead, Tiger lowered the bar.
He played on when he shouldn’t have.
Instead of winning on Saturday morning, he decided to stick it out and try to win on Sunday afternoon.
Winning on Saturday would have been much better for him in the long run.
And it would have been much better for the game of golf and the legion of young boys and girls who are growing up with the sport and need constant reminders that golf is policed by the players themselves and the rules must be abided by at all times.