A. The Background

If you want to understand the Tiger Woods vs Rules of Golf controversy, you need to master the basics:  the USGA rules and decisions that apply to the situation.  If you don’t understand these four edicts, you will never understand the controversy.  Here are the four key items (with italics added for emphasis):

  •  Rule 26-1, paragraph a. of the USGA’s Rules of Golf, prescribing one of the four options available when a player hits a ball into a water hazard:  “Proceed under the stroke and distance provision of Rule 27-1 by playing a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played (see Rule 20-5).”  As you will see, Woods violated that rule, by dropping his replacement ball too far from that spot.
  •  Rule 6-6 of the Rules of Golf.  The pertinent part of Rule 6-6 is:  “The competitor is responsible for the correctness of the score recorded for each hole on his score card. If he returns a score for any hole lower than actually taken, he is disqualified.”  Because Woods returned a score that did not reflect the proper (2-stroke) penalty for violating Rule 26-1, Rule 6-6 came into play, and Woods should have been disqualified, unless he qualified for a waiver of rule 6-6.
  •  Rule 33-7 of the Rules of Golf (so critical to this discussion, it will be called the “RULE”).  The pertinent part of the RULE is:  “A penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted.”  The RULE is the USGA publication that was indicated by Fred Ridley, head of the Masters rules committee, as the basis for the committee’s decision to impose the 2-stroke penalty for a 27-1 violation but to refrain from disqualifying Woods under 6-6 – in other words, it was the basis for their decision to waive the disqualification penalty..
  •  Decision 33-7/4.5 of the USGA (it will be called the “DECISION”), adopted in 2011 by both the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (the “R & A,” the organization that runs the British Open).  Note that the number of the DECISION (33-7/4.5) is similar to the number of RULE (33-7), but that the DECISION and the RULE are two different things. Decisions are essentially interpretations of Rules.  They are like federal Regulations issued by the government to explain or interpret federal statutes – the “Regs” are not exactly laws, but you are still in trouble if you do not obey them. The DECISION is the USGA edict that has been (mistakenly) referred to by nearly all the commentators as the basis for the Masters rules committee’s decision to give Woods a waiver of the disqualification penalty for violating Rule 6-6, even though he signed an incorrect scorecard.  (The commentators are mistaken because it was Rule 33-7, not Decision 33-7/4.5, that was the the rules committee’s announced reason for its ruling.  This is a critical point:  the commentators have been fooled into thinking the waiver was based on the DECISION, not the RULE.)  Here are the pertinent parts of the DECISION (with italics added for emphasis):

Decision 33-7/4.5 is a “new interpretation of the rules . . . where disqualifications have been caused by score card errors identified as the result of recent advances in video technologies. . . . This revision . . . addresses the situation where a player is not aware he has breached a Rule because of facts that he did not know and could not reasonably have discovered prior to returning his score card. . . .  the disqualification penalty still applies for score card breaches that arise from ignorance of the Rules of Golf. . . . this decision reinforces that it is still the responsibility of the player to know the Rules.”   

B.  The Facts

You do not need a law degree to understand why the DECISION should not have helped Woods, because it did not apply – it does NOT describe the Tiger Woods case.  There were no facts that Woods did not know.  Woods knew he had hit his ball into a yellow-staked water hazard (regardless of how zany a path it took to get there), and – most importantly – he knew that the place from which he chose to drop a replacement ball was NOT as close as possible to the spot from which he had played the unlucky shot.  Apparently he did not know, or perhaps temporarily forgot, the yellow-stake rules – specifically, the rule that, if you elect not to play from the hazard or from the designated drop area and you also reject (as Woods did) the geometrically complicated option of playing from “behind” the hazard, the yellow-stake rule leaves you with only one other option:  take a penalty stroke and “play a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.”  (The option identified above as Rule 26-1 a.)  What Woods actually did, and publicly acknowledged after his round – indeed, bragged – that he did, was that he played his replacement ball from a spot that was a couple of yards back from the spot from which he had played his original ball, in order to make sure his second effort would not hit the flagstick or go over the green.  In essence, he rejected the first three options and settled on an incorrect attempt at the fourth option.  Partly as a result of Woods’s own words, it is now 100% certain that Woods’s breach of the rules was based upon ignorance of the rules (whether permanent or based upon a temporary memory lapse), not upon any lack of awareness as to factual circumstances – like the place where his unlucky shot bounced into the water, the spot from which he had hit that shot, and the different spot from which he hit his replacement ball.  (The Rules of Golf themselves, are certainly not “facts,”  and apparently no one has yet had the temerity to suggest that a Rule of Golf is a fact, certainly not in the context of the DECISION.) 

Alas, the only thing of which Woods was ignorant – even if his ignorance was just temporary obliviousness under duress – was the Rule of Golf (Rule 26-1) that required that if he chose the stroke-and-distance penalty, he had to drop his replacement ball as close as possible to the spot from which he had hit the first ball, not one or two yards behind that spot.  It has been suggested that Woods might have temporarily confused the options for red-stake (lateral) hazards with the options for yellow-stake hazards and mistakenly chosen an option that was not available to him under the circumstances.    More likely is that he forgot (or did not know) that when your shot bounces backwards from the flagstick into a yellow-stake hazard, your options on where to drop your replacement ball can be quite different from your options if your initial shot went directly forward into the water rather than caroming backwards into it.   In other words, he did not think he was electing “stroke and distance,” he mistakenly thought he was doing a legal drop under the “behind the hazard” option under Rule 26-1 but was picturing the wrong line backwards from the flagstick.  In either case, whatever his motive or state of mind, and whatever the duration of those mental conditions, Woods broke the rules and did not do so because of lack of knowledge of the pertinent “facts”  but because he forgot or did not know the pertinent rule, and therefore he should have been disqualified.  End of discussion. No possibility of a waiver.  Neither the RULE nor the DECISION should have done Woods any good at all.

C.  The Action By The Rules Committee

It is remarkable that Fred Ridley, a lawyer as well as a golfer, never referred to the DECISION, not even once, in the press conference in which he announced the committee’s ruling or in its press release.  Virtually all of the announcers, journalists, and commentators have persisted in talking about the DECISION as though it were the basis for the committee’s ruling, probably because it is the DECISION that contains all the talk about video technologies and such.  But Ridley himself never once referred to the DECISION; he referred only to the RULE (section 33-7 of the Rules of Golf) as the basis for the committee’s ruling, even though the RULE makes no mention of TV viewers calling in with reports of rules infractions.  It is true that Ridley took no steps to correct the misinterpretations of the commentators, and that he said certain things that made it seem like he might have been thinking of the DECISION rather than the RULE, but it is highly unlikely that lawyer Ridley was confused about the differences between the DECISION and the RULE; it is quite reasonable to presume that Ridley was well aware of the precise meaning of every word he spoke and that he made a considered choice in electing NOT to refer to the DECISION.

D.  Possible Reasons For The Committee’s Action

So, why would Ridley cite only the RULE when his action appears to have been based upon factors never discussed in the RULE?   The rules violation would never have been spotted had it not been for video technologies and a “changing environment,” but those are factors that are never mentioned in the RULE, so why did Ridley cite only the RULE – the wrong source? 

Possible answer:  Ridley might have elected to cite the RULE instead of the DECISION because the RULE doesn’t make any mention of the distinction between ignorance of fact and ignorance of rules.  Ridley might have chosen to use the RULE because it does not explicitly shoot down the ignorant-of-the-law argument.  The RULE might have appeared to fill the bill, because it says nothing about facts vs. rules.  But that doesn’t cut it, certainly not for the lawyers in the audience, because the apparent permissiveness of the RULE is trumped by one statement in the DECISION that shows why Ridley was wrong in citing the RULE as authority for waiving the disqualification penalty (italics added): 

“The R&A and the USGA confirm that the disqualification penalty still applies for score card breaches that arise from ignorance of the Rules of golf.  As such, the decision reinforces that it is still the responsibility of the player to know the rules, while recognizing that there may be some rare situations where it is reasonable that a player is unaware of the factual circumstances of a breach.”  In other words, the twin rule-making bodies are making it very clear that ignorance of the Rules of Golf is never an excuse, not even if you try to invoke the RULE (Rule 33-7) as your authority rather than the DECISION.  If you sign an incorrect scorecard because you were not familiar with a Rule of Golf or you forgot it, you MUST be disqualified.  No exceptions, under either the RULE or the DECISION.

Or perhaps Ridley shied away from invoking the DECISION because the DECISION explicitly rules out ignorance of the Rules of Golf as a basis for waiving the disqualification penalty whereas the RULE never mentions ignorance, but just speaks in terms of the waiver being warranted in exceptional cases, and perhaps the crafty Mr. Ridley felt it was better to rely on wording that was vague (the RULE) rather than on wording that clearly went against the decision his committee wanted to take (the DECISION ).  The problem is, the DECISION cannot be ignored, because the DECISION effectively forbids the use of the RULE to justify a waiver of the disqualification penalty.  Surely lawyer Ridley must have known that.

Ridley made it painfully clear that he felt responsible for Woods’s plight, because he (Ridley) did not do a good enough job of investigating the phoned-in complaint, and thus he did not warn Woods to raise his score by 2 strokes to reflect a penalty for playing a shot from the wrong place – for improperly dropping his ball after the shot into the hazard.  Yes, it would have been sad if Woods had been disqualified because of his reliance on the silence of the rules committee.  Yes, that would have been an extraordinary situation.  And yes, it is maybe even conceivable that a new rule or decision could be adopted in the future, to attempt to address this kind of a situation, though this writer, personally, thinks that would be a bad idea.  Ridley’s concern about Woods becoming an innocent victim of circumstances might explain Ridley’s actions, but it does not excuse Ridley’s error.

E.  The Consequences

Where does this leave us?  It leaves us to conclude that Ridley, despite his lawyer-like efforts to establish a foundation for his committee’s decision (that is, to excuse and obscure his mistake), has screwed up in a manner that, if one may coin a phrase, is both Royal and Ancient.  He chose to cite the RULE, rather than the DECISION, as authority for the committee’s action, possibly in order to work a deception.  So, let us cut to the chase.  Regardless of their motives, Ridley and the sules committee made a decision that is clearly incorrect.  Woods should have been disqualified, regardless of the purity of Woods’s (or Ridley’s) heart of intentions.

In the writer’s opinion, Fred Ridley has done something that could lead to enormous harm to the game of golf.  It does not matter whether he erred because (a) he merely misapplied the DECISION (it was definitely NOT intended to cover situations like Ridley’s inadvertently luring Tiger into signing what proved to be an incorrect scorecard by failing to detect the problem before the signing occurred), or (b) he knowingly staked out a new precedent for treating the old RULE as though it now were no longer to be considered affected by the DECISION, so that in the future a player can get a disqualification waived for ANY “exceptional” situation rather than merely where video technology leads to the discovery of unknown facts.  Either way,  this whole thing spells trouble.  From now on, any pro facing a disqualification for any reason whatsoever could simply plead good faith, justice, fairness, whatever, and then argue, “Hey, you did it for Tiger, you can’t discriminate against me just because I am not Tiger.” 

In other words, this is the gateway to a more-general breakdown in the enforcement of the Rules of Golf, a precedent for ignoring ALL the cumbersome, tedious, old-fashioned rules put together by a bunch of stuffy old white guys a hundred years ago.  Just read or listen to the commentators and fans talking about how the Ridley action was correct because a disqualification would have been “unfair” and the Rules of Golf are stupid and boring and no one cares about them anyway.   All they seem to want to talk about is outcomes, feelings, motives, fairness, and the like, rather than whether the rules were broken.  Next thing you know, they will be arguing that the Rules of Golf, like the US Constitution, should be read as a “living document,” to be changed by executive order whenever the rulers of golf feel like the current rules are a bit out of date or do not result in the right people winning.  Or might result in Tiger Woods not being allowed to play on the weekend.

For those of us who think the Rules of Golf reflect clear and concise and indeed elegant drafting, and who believe the game of golf has been remarkably well served by them, this controversy and its outcome are a travesty.  There is a good and logical reason for every single Rule of Golf, and when there has been an informed consensus for a change from time to time – the change has been made.  A wholesale abandonment of rules in favor of just doing whatever seems “fair” every time there is a controversy, is a terrible and pernicious idea.


Final note: Here is a clarification, in response to initial comments upon this post.  This writer is agnostic when it comes to Woods’s decision to accept the committee’s decision and to remain in the tournament rather than voluntarily withdrawing.  Yes, it would have been a good thing, probably a popular thing, for him to do, but the committee gave him a break, and he accepted and ran with it.  I did not intend to criticize Woods’s decision.  My point had solely to do with the actions of the Masters rules committee, whose duty is to interpret and apply the Rules and Decisions of Golf, but which failed miserably in its attempts to perform that duty.  If the game of golf is the eventual loser, don’t blame Tiger Woods, blame Fred Ridley.



  1. Mike:

    This was my thoughts as well. Very good logic. Tiger should have disqualified himself as he knows better. Aparently, money and TV mean more than preserving the integrity of the game.

  2. Interesting comment, but it simply shows why a lawyer with no golf rules background should not venture into an unfamiliar area. Your thesis misses two fundamental points that virtually all knowledgable rules observers agree on:

    (1) The committee had the authorrity under Rule 33-7 to waive the DQ penallty under “exeptional” circumstances. These clearly were exceptional circumstances since, had the committee done its job, it would have spoken with Woods about the incident before he signed his card, resolved the issue, and there never would have been a DQ issue. This is clearly the grounds for the waiver. And it makes sense.

    (2) Decision 33-7/4.5 simply interprets the rule in a very narrow factual situation which was NOT present in Woods’ case, and did not apply. Woods was aware of, or could have been aware of, all of the facts surrounding the drop. This is not a situation described in the Decision where a technology like HDTV allowed a viewer to detect something the player could not. The decision does not suprecede or limit the committee’s discretionary authority under the rule to waive the DQ penalty in “exceptional” circumstances. This is why the committee did not rely on it. It simply was plainly inapplicable by its terms. As a lawyer, you should appreciate the difference between a rule (or statute) and a judicial or administrative interpretation of the rule.

    • Mr. Ross makes an interesting comment. He acknowledges that the rules committee did not rely on Decision 33-7/4.5 and relied solely on Rule 33-7, and he is quite correct; I made the very same point, though I noted that committee chair Fred Ridley sent out a lot of signals that he was indeed relying upon the Decision as well as the rule. Here is Ridley’s introductory comment: “After being prompted by a television viewer, the Rules Committee reviewed a video of the shot while (Woods) was playing the 18th hole.” And then there is that fact that nearly every commentator (exception: Bob Harig) described the Ridley decision as being based on the Decision, and Ridley did nothing to correct any of the commentators. Mr. Ross is also correct in confirming my observation that Woods was aware of, or could have been aware of, all of the facts surrounding his drop. So far, so good.

      The problem is, the introduction to Decision 33-7/4.5 says this: “The R&A and the USGA have announced a new interpretation of the rules . . . where disqualifications have been caused by score card errors identified as the result of recent advances in video technologies.” In other words, this is to deal with cases where TV, live and on replays and close-ups, reveals potential rules infractions that did not appear to have been spotted or acknowledged by the player and where a viewer later calls or electronically communicates the possible infraction to the tour officials – for example, the Woods case. And then it gets worse for Mr. Ross’s case, as the USGA, later on in the body of Decision 33-7/4.5, says this: “A Committee would not be justified under Rule 33-7 in waiving or modifying the disqualification penalty prescribed in Rule 6-6d if the player’s failure to include the penalty stroke(s) was a result of either ignorance of the Rules or of facts that the player could have reasonably discovered prior to signing and returning his score card.” Please note that the USGA, in spelling out the DECISION (33-7/4.5), is telling us about what the RULE means – Rule 33-7. According to the USGA, a rules committee cannot grant a 33-7 waiver in the Woods case – a case where, as Mr. Ross acknowledges, “the player was aware of, or could have been aware of, all of the facts surrounding the drop.” The committee may have thought it had unlimited discretion to grant DQ waivers under Rule 33-7, but Decision 33-7/4.5 says no it does not, as it states plainly that the committee did NOT have discretion to grant waivers in cases like the Woods case.

      Yes, Mr. Ross, as a lawyer, I do understand the “difference between a rule (or statute) and a judicial administrative interpretation of the rule,” and I can personally guaranty that when the US Supreme Court issues an opinion that includes a judicial interpretation of a rule or statute, that opinion, that interpretation, becomes the law of the land. (Check out Brown v. Board of Education, Rowe v. Wade, Citizens United, etc.) In short, the decision trumps the rule or statute. When the USGA issues a Decision that interprets a Rule, that Decision is the law of golf-land.

      Michael E. C. Moss

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