ATLANTA – On the eve of the Tour Championship, with an opportunity to take a strong stand regarding the ever-more-absurd collection of rules violations dogging golf in general and himself in particular, Tiger Woods performed the rhetorical equivalent of laying up short of the green.
Certainly, Woods has reason to take a direct interest in the ever-sharpening blade that is the golf rulebook. In January, he suffered a two-stroke penalty, enough to miss the cut, following an improper drop at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. At the Masters, his decision-making following a shot that caromed off the flagstick resulted in another two-shot penalty, and Woods only avoided disqualification through some creative rules application by Augusta National. And at the Players Championship, Woods raised more than a few eyebrows with what, to many, seemed an exceptionally generous drop well up the fairway after his tee shot found the water.
Then this past week, Woods once again found himself on the receiving end of a two-shot penalty, this time after his ball moved while he was clearing brush from around it. Woods maintained his innocence even after video conclusively proved that the ball moved as a direct result of his actions, but the penalty stood.
With all that in the air, with the suspicion about Woods' honesty on the course now under direct attack, you'd think Woods would be ready to offer some kind of opinion on golf's rules, rules makers and rules enforcers.
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You'd think … and then you'd remember this is Tiger Woods we're talking about. The guy who does all he can to evade controversy, to sand off edges, to stomp potentially interesting stories into a thin, watery gruel.
Here's an example. Woods was asked about whether he'd ever suffered through a year like this from a rules perspective. He set the stage for his own perspective well enough.
"I can't remember another year in which this [rules controversy] has happened like this," he said. Excellent opportunity for him to step up and say something definitive, right? Maybe he's in favor of the stringent application of rules. Maybe he thinks that common sense ought to come into play. Maybe he thinks … something? Anything?
Nope. Instead, this is how he slammed the door shut with his next statement: "Kind of just the way it's been and the way it goes." That statement could apply to literally any sequence of events in human history.
On Tuesday, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem discussed the rules issue, specifically the absurdity of allowing viewers at home to call in violations on players at the course. Finchem gave a we're-studying-the-problem answer:
"What's a reasonable point to accept outside information?" Finchem said. "Is it better to have some sort of limit on it, if you don't learn about something before ‘x' time? All the other sports close their books a little quicker than we do, so to speak."
No player is on camera more regularly, and thus more subject to call-ins from overzealous-nanny fans, than Woods. Three times, Woods was offered the chance to comment on the changing world of rules applications and enforcement in golf, and three times he avoided directly addressing the topic in anything more than generalities.
Obviously, TV viewers can't call in rules violations if the violations aren't shown on TV. Doesn't that then set up a bias against those players, like Woods, who are on television with almost every shot? He acknowledged the situation, then declined to take any stronger stand against it.
"It's a new age in which there's a lot of cameras that are around – well, around my group and then some of the top players," he said. "I get it from the first time I step on the range on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, all the way through, and virtually every shot's on something … So it's just a new age, and how we go about it, I think the commissioner was right. We're going to have more discussions about it in the future."
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Woods acknowledged the futility of having a camera following every one of the 156 players in most tournaments, and he reiterated some measure of support for Finchem's time limit on violations. But he had the opportunity to create some positive momentum on the rules issue, to demand clarity and common sense to a part of the game that often lacks both, and he left it short.
Simply by the fact that he's returned to the top of the World Golf Rankings after injury and scandal, Woods has surprised and stunned the golf world. If he were to take a firm stand on the rules issue, rather than studiously avoid anything firm until it affects him, that would be almost as much of a shocker.