Masters made this mess, not Tiger Woods

The official “Rules of Golf” comprises 220 pages. It’s not quite the length of the NCAA manual (458), but it’s long enough to border on obsessive, even in a sport that for some reason allows clubs to resemble nuclear warheads and clearly has no rules for fashion.

Those who are very serious about their golf are very serious about their rules. They lay their head on a pillow at night while reciting golf’s version of the serenity prayer: “Play the ball as it lies, play the course as you find it, and if you cannot do either, do what is fair.” (Speak in whispers for a more dramatic effect.)

It’s against this backdrop that many seem indignant about what happened — or didn’t happen — to Tiger Woods on Saturday at the Masters. Woods admitting he tried to gain an advantage (some read: cheated) by taking an improper drop on the 15th hole in Friday’s second round. The Masters chose not to disqualify him for this admission because they initially cleared his drop Friday, only to later retroactively penalize him two strokes Saturday.

That’s right. Cleared him Friday. Changed their mind Saturday.

If Tiger Woods screwed up, the Masters screwed up more. It’s easier to make a case that Woods shouldn’t have been penalized at all than it is that he should’ve been DQ’d. It’s easier to make the case that Augusta National Club officials should be penalized the equivalent of two strokes: Maybe wear purple Sunday.

Woods takes the drop. Tournament officials say nothing. Woods finishes the tournament and signs his card.

An unidentified television viewer — perhaps somebody with a Swedish accent who identified herself only as “Elin”? — phones the club after believing they witnessed an improper drop while watching the tournament. Again, the club officials decided Woods “proceeded appropriately.” (Amusing point from Bubba Watson: “I (wouldn’t) know which number to call. I don’t know even how these people get a number to call.”)

Sometime after 10 p.m. Friday, competition committee chairman Fred Ridley was informed of Woods media interviews, in which he stated: “I went back to where I played it from, but I went two yards further back, and I tried to take two yards off the shot of what I felt I hit.”

Only then were concerns raised, a meeting with Woods was scheduled and punishment was handed out.

Who operates like this?

Let’s apply similar circumstances to another sport. A pitcher is accused of throwing a scuffed baseball. The opposing team asks the umpire to check the pitcher. No incriminating evidence is ever found. The pitcher wins the game. Afterward he says, yes, sometimes he does things to the ball to get an edge. Is baseball going to disqualify the pitcher and vacate his win from the day before?

Before resuming actual golf Saturday, Woods released a statement saying the expected. He accepts the punishment, he respects the decision and, “I took a drop that I thought was correct and in accordance with the rules. I was unaware at that time I had violated any rules. I didn’t know I had taken an incorrect drop prior to signing my scorecard.”

And, honestly, whether that’s bunk or not is beside the point. The only drop that matters: The Masters dropped the ball. Move on.

Woods shot 2 under par Saturday and is 3 under for the tournament, four shots back. If not for the penalty, he would be two back. After his round, he said he didn’t even know there was an issue until getting a text message from his agent in the morning.

When asked what he thought about those who believe he should have withdrawn from the tournament, Woods said, “I don’t know. Under the rules of golf, I can play.”

Yes. About those rules. Two years ago golf’s keymasters, the Royal and Ancient and the USGA, added “Decision 33-7/4.5.” It’s written in shades of gray and loaded with offramps. It effectively was added because of new video technology that can identify scorecard errors not detected before, but also eliminates automatic disqualifications, pending the judgement of officials.

Let me translate: “Yesterday, we should have penalized you. But we didn’t, so we’ll only slap your hand.”

Confused? Here’s an excerpt: “… this 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.”

The rule has wiggle room, and the Masters exploited that.

Woods’ third shot on the 15th hole hit the flagstick. Because of incredibly bad luck, the ball bounced and rolled back into the creek. Woods had three options on where to take his drop, and he chose to do it from the spot of his original shot. Video appeared to show Woods near the divot left from his first shot, but his subsequent comments suggested otherwise.

So now some folks are running around with arms flailing as if the barn was on fire. But Masters officials probably got it right in the end. They knew they couldn’t disqualify him — Ridley said it never was on the table — and if they let Woods skate completely they would’ve been accused of going easy on the guy who moves the needle.

“This tournament is about integrity,” Ridley said. So take that.

Woods pushed the envelope. But if he really believed he busted a rule, he wouldn’t have said something in a TV interview, let alone at the Masters. For his absence of morals off the course, he never has been accused of being a cheat on it.

On a Masters Sunday, Woods will be on the leaderboard. Anything else wouldn’t be just.