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Rules Are Rules?

11:30 AM, Apr 13, 2013 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The world of golf (an admittedly precious domain) held its breath Friday night and Saturday morning, waiting to learn if Tiger Woods would be disqualified at the Masters for a rules violation. This, after the enforcers of the rules had assessed a one-shot penalty against a fourteen year-old for slow play.  Chinese amateur Tianlang Guan took it well, saying he "respected" the decision.  Those unfamiliar with golf's insistence on strict enforcement of the rules were put in mind of Inspector Javert and his lust to punish a man for stealing a loaf of bread. And, then, there was the possibility that the one-stroke penalty would push Guan's score above the cut line so that he would not be playing this weekend. This, when he was one of the great feel-good stories of the tournament and, not incidentally, followed by people beyond the insular world of American golf. A few million of them, many of whom would feel cheated if their hero was sent to the gallows for stealing chickens.

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Then, later, Woods also violated the rules when he improved his lie when taking a drop after his ball had gone into the water. On that shot, Woods could have been forgiven for thinking the Gods of golf had singled him out for special torment when his ball struck the flag stick and, on the ricochet, went into the water.

That was exceedingly bad luck. What happened next was bad judgment. Woods dropped three or four feet beyond the spot from which he'd made the unlucky shot. This, he later explained in a televised interview, in order to make the ball land a little short of the hole if he duplicated the shot. The rules specify that a drop in this case should be made from a point "as close as possible" to the spot of the previous shot.

And so ... controversy all over Twitter, Facebook, and in the holy chambers of the Masters, where there was, no doubt, much exquisite agonizing over what to do. Strict enforcement of the rules would mean making Tiger Woods stand in the corner for the rest of the weekend while people with names like Jason Day and Jason Dufner played on and millions decided that they would sooner cut the grass than stay inside and watch to see which Jason could avoid the water and the rules minefield and win the tournament.

But ... the rules are the rules and disciples of the game believe not only that the rules should be enforced inflexibly but, also, by the players themselves. In golf, if you violate the rules, you call the penalty on yourself. Truly.  

Once, after losing a tournament because he had called a one-stroke penalty on himself for a ball movement that nobody else saw, golf legend Bobby Jones was hailed for a his great act of sportsmanship. Jones brushed it off, saying that he might just as well have been praised for not robbing a bank. The Masters, not incidentally, is played on a Jones course.

So for a while, the possibilities seemed to come down to either the Masters kicking Woods out of the tournament or Woods kicking himself out, which might have accomplished the extraordinary result of making him a sympathetic figure.

Ah, but this is the age of the loophole. With minutes to go before the tournament opened, officials enforced a two-stroke penalty on Woods under the provisions of a new rule that was designed around the phenomenon of people seeing on television a rules violation of which players and officials were not aware.  

It was a long stretch and one that will, no doubt, be hotly debated in pro-shops and locker rooms around the world.

But Woods will be playing this weekend. And if he wins ... an asterisk, perhaps?

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