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April 13. 2013 8:18PM

Tiger drops into more hot water

Tiger Woods takes a drop on the 15th hole after hitting into the water during the second round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Friday. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT)

AUGUSTA, Georgia - Neither Tiger Woods nor Masters officials emerged with much credit after a messy resolution to the controversial "penalty drop" affair that sparked widespread debate in the golfing world on Saturday.

Woods, the world's No. 1 player and overwhelming favorite to win a fifth green jacket at Augusta National this week, was spared the ignominy of disqualification when the rules committee decided to exercise leniency over his infringement in the second round.

Instead of sending the 14-time champion packing for taking an illegal drop at the par-5 15th after his third shot on Friday had ended up in water, they opted to ?

slap him with a two-stroke? penalty.

Fred Ridley, chairman of the Masters competition committee, defended the decision, saying Woods had been cleared of any wrongdoing after a video review before the American had completed his round.

However, Woods then muddied the waters during his post-round interview when he described in detail how he had gone "two yards further back" for his drop in order to create a better shot.

His admission forced Ridley and company to summon Woods to Augusta National on Saturday morning to explain his thinking, but at that stage, a disqualification was no longer in the cards.

"We had made a decision before he finished his round ... and I think he's entitled to be protected by 33-7," Ridley said, referring to rule that allows a player to stay in a tournament if an infringement is based on television evidence.

"That's our decision, and others agree with us.''

However, there are two big problems here.

First, Woods clearly violated Rule 26-1, which requires a player to drop the ball "as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played,'' and in most instances that would lead to a disqualification.

Several leading players and angered fans populated Twitter-verse on Saturday saying that Woods should have been ousted from the tournament and that his status as the game's top draw had almost certainly saved him.

PGA Tour player Kyle Thompson tweeted: "I guess Tiger is BIGGER than golf. Any other person in the world gets DQ'd. Gotta keep those TV ratings going right?"

There were many calls for Woods to follow the honorable route by falling on his sword and pulling out of the Masters, a move that would have earned him widespread respect in golf as well as a much-needed PR boost.

Voice from New Hampshire

Craig McLaughlin, the head golf professional at Candia Woods Golf Links in Candia, said he thought Woods likely "got confused" about where he needed to drop the ball, rather than doing anything overtly against the rules. He said Woods had three options after his ball ended up in the water: He could go to a drop zone; go to the spot where the ball entered the water and move back as far as he'd liked; or drop the ball as close to his original hitting spot as possible, which Woods chose.

McLaughlin said that, under former rules, a player who signed an incorrect scorecard would be immediately disqualified.

"Ultimately, it came down to a committee decision, and by rule, he was spared from disqualification," he said.

McLaughlin, though, said he understands the criticism of those who contend that Woods should have disqualified himself.

"It is on the individual to make that call on themselves," he said.

Reputation building

Although comfortably the greatest player of his generation, Woods has never been a warm figure adored by the fans and is still rebuilding a reputation battered by the revelations of his sordid extra-marital affairs just over three years ago.

Had Woods decided to withdraw from one of the game's biggest events following his unfortunate brush with the rules, he would have earned high praise for living up to golf's valued reputation for honesty and sportsmanship.

Six-time major champion Nick Faldo told Golf Channel: "Our rules are black and white: That is a breach of the rules. Simple as that. He has to sit down quietly and think about this - the mark this will leave on his career, his legacy.''

Former world No. 1 David Duval, who has established a reputation for carefully considered opinions since opening a Twitter account, tweeted: "Was there intent to break the rule . . .? I think he should WD. He took a drop to gain an advantage.''

There have been several instances over the years of players penalizing, or even disqualifying, themselves.

American Jeff Sluman was two strokes off the lead after the second round of the 1996 Bay Hill Invitational when he withdrew following confusion over what he initially thought was a legal drop at the 17th hole after hitting his ball into water.

The following day, he went out on a cart with a rules official to the same spot and, when neither man could be sure of the legality, Sluman immediately disqualified himself from the tournament.

Just as Woods erred with his drop, an apparently innocent mistake as he mixed up the rule for shot-and-distance relief with line-of-sight relief, so, too, Masters officials blundered by not speaking to him on Friday.

"There's not a day that goes by that there are not some things I wish I would have done differently,'' Ridley replied when asked whether he should have spoken to Woods before his committee made its initial decision during the second round.

However, Ridley rebutted any suggestion that Woods could have received preferential treatment, saying: "All I can say is that unequivocally this tournament is about integrity.

"Our founder, Bobby Jones, was about integrity, and if this had been John Smith from wherever, he would have gotten the same ruling because, again, it is the right ruling under these circumstances."

Union Leader Staff Writer Timothy Buckland contributed to this report.

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