You’d think that in his first start since taking a bad drop at the Masters and receiving one of the more unique rulings of the year, Tiger Woods would have been especially conservative about where he took a drop after finding a water hazard.
After all, “Dropgate”, as the Masters kerfuffle was called, followed Tiger all the way to Jacksonville a month after the fact.
So it was somewhat surprising when Tiger pull-hooked his tee shot in the water hazard left of the 14th fairway in Sunday’s final round of The Players Championship and took a drop that NBC analyst Johnny Miller immediately called “really, really borderline.”
That was one of the milder comments.
The drama unfolded this way: After birdieing No. 12 and making a par at 13, Tiger stood on the 14th tee with a two-shot lead. But then he hit a tee shot that started left and went farther left, splashing in the middle of the water hazard that runs parallel to the fairway.
At first glance, it looked as though the ball crossed the hazard almost immediately upon leaving the tee, but angles can be deceiving. That was what made the NBC overhead shot from the MetLife Blimp so important. When the network showed the shot, it appeared to confirm first impressions — the ball looked to fly over the hazard just ahead of the forward tee.
That’s when things got tricky. Tiger asked his fellow competitor, Casey Wittenberg, if the ball had hooked far enough to cross the hazard much farther up and much closer to the green. Wittenberg said it had, and Tiger took his drop.
If Tiger had asked NBC’s Mark Rolfing — Tiger had approached Roger Maltbie at least once Saturday to ask what was happening — Rolfing could have had producers run the tape back and confirm where the ball had crossed. As crazy as that might sound, the spirit of the rule is to drop the ball as closely as possible to the correct spot. The blimp shot showed that.
Unfortunately, viewers never saw that overhead replay again after Tiger took his drop and moved along.
PGA Tour pro, Steve Elkington, who won the Players Championship twice in 1991 and 1997, immediately tweeted, “Forget Tiger’s shot! How good was that drop?”
Elkington followed that up a couple of minutes later with, “Hey, NBC, can we have a look at that blimp shot of Tiger’s water ball?” And then: “Roll the tape @NBCSports.”
The fact that the network never aired the replay only fueled speculation that Tiger had taken a bad drop, or as Elkington later tweeted, “In Lindsey Vonn terms, Tiger might have missed a gate in the downhill.”
Former PGA Champion and Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, known for his brilliant wit, tweeted: “I can’t hear the broadcast. But I’m guessing NBC must not have a blimp shot of Tiger’s tee shot on 14 of they’d show it.”
So pervasive were the questions that before the trophy presentation, the PGA Tour issued the following statement on the incident:
“Without definitive evidence, the point where Woods’ ball last crossed the lateral water hazard is determined through best judgment by Woods and his fellow competitor. If that point later proves to be a wrong point (through television or other means), the player is not penalized by Rule 26-1 given the fact that a competitor would risk incurring a penalty every time he makes an honest judgment as to the point where his ball last crosses a water-hazard margin and that judgment subsequently proves incorrect (Decision 26-1/17).”
That is the same rule by which Tiger avoided disqualification during the Masters. On that Friday, he hit his third shot in the water hazard on the par-five 15th, took a bad drop (in that case a couple of yards behind the spot where he struck his original shot) and signed a scorecard for a score that was lower than what he’d actually shot.
Since the days of Old Tom Morris, the penalty for that infraction has been disqualification. But because a television viewer called the incident in and the committee failed to bring the matter up to Tiger before he signed his card, he was given a two-shot penalty and allowed to play the weekend.
The Players Championship was Tiger’s first tournament since that incident in Augusta.
He made double-bogey after the drop at 14, the same score he likely would have made if he’d dropped well back or even re-teed. Plus, there is no guarantee that Rolfing or any of the NBC camera or sound men following Tiger could have given him a better idea of where the ball crossed the hazard. But an unasked question is rarely answered.