On Sunday at the Masters, always one of the three or four most compelling days of the year in sports, Tiger Woods will wear red and feel a little blue. Unless he has the final round charge of his life, and at this point anything's possible in what's been a nutty tournament so far, won't we all experience some level of emptiness by sundown?
He should be starting his Sunday two shots off the lead instead of four. He had the lead late in the second round. Then it got a little too weird, for him, for the rules of golf, for the tournament, for golf experts both amateur and pro, for anyone with an opinion both educated or not. And this happened all because of three fluke events that we're unlikely to see ever again, at least not back-to-back-to-back like that.
Fluke No. 1: His beauty of a shot on the 15th hit the pin (good) and then bounced into the water (not so good). What are the chances?
Fluke No. 2: Of the millions watching at home, one couch potato somewhere with a hotline to the tournament -- yes, the Augusta National receptionist actually patched him through -- snitched after seeing Tiger place his penalty shot a few yards behind his original shot. What are the chances?
Fluke No. 3: Tiger interviews are never very revealing, and yet after his round Friday he chose a fine time to confirm, unknowingly at the time, that his drop shot was a no-no. What are the chances?
Then it really got crazy overnight: Another review of his drop, an emergency meeting at midnight among guys in green jackets, a nervous phone call to Tiger, a sunrise summit with Tiger, a two-shot penalty for Tiger, Twitter blowing up, golf experts going nuts, debates about disqualifications raging and finally, Tiger shaking off the distractions and keeping himself in contention with par saves on his last three holes Saturday.
The day was loopier than his two-foot putt on the eighth hole, which did a full 360-degree turn inside the lip of the cup and spun out. And you thought two women in green jackets and a 14-year-old making the cut would be the oddest sights of the tournament.
"I wasn't even thinking," said Tiger, about the drop. "I was still a little ticked at what happened. I was thinking I need to take some yards off this [next] shot. It was pretty obvious I didn't drop it in the right spot.
"I made a mistake under the rules of golf. I took an improper drop and I got the penalty."
Really, once you peel away all the hysteria and the fuss, that's all it was. A rules violation and a punishment, which was accepted without protest. Nothing more or less.
To put rules violations in the proper golf perspective, and why folks are bent out of shape about this, nobody expects you to call a foul on yourself in a pickup basketball game. Everyone expects you to call a foul on yourself, if an infraction happens, in a round of golf. It's in the spirit of the gentleman's game. Always has been, always will be. Golf's different that way. Any example of cheating can haunt a golfer forever, and for someone like Woods, taint his legacy.
His day began with a call from Mark Steinberg, his long-time agent, and "it's never a good thing when that happens," Tiger said, laughing. Turned out to be not as bad as he thought. At least he got to keep playing.
"I didn't know what was going on," he said.
Let us state, without question and with emphasis, the following:
Tiger made a mistake.
Tournament officials made a bigger mistake.
Tiger should not have been DQ'd.
Tiger had no obligation to golf or Bobby Jones or anyone else to place his bag and Lindsey Vonn on the private jet and leave immediately.
"Under the rules of golf," he said, "I could play on."
Finally, the rules are as simple to understand as the SAT test. Tiger was spared because of a similar experience two years ago by Padraig Harrington. He was punished after a viewer alerted the tournament about a possible violation that Harrington was unaware of. Now, players can't be DQ'd based on facts he didn't know or could not have discovered prior to returning his scorecard. Once the rules committee, after a first review, thought Tiger did nothing wrong and therefore didn't approach him before he signed his scorecard, Tiger was in the clear.
"Disqualification was not even on the table," said Fred Ridley, the rules chairman. "Had this been John Smith, he would've gotten the same ruling because again, it is the right ruling under these circumstances."
Actually, John Smith never would've earned a penalty because his round never would've made the telecast.
The idea that the Masters gave Tiger preferential treatment because he's back to being the No. 1 draw in the game doesn't pass the smell test for a few reasons. The Masters has a built-in audience every year, and tickets -- oh, sorry, "badges" -- have been sold out since the Great Depression. Therefore, there was no financial or any other gain by allowing him to play after he signed the wrong scorecard. Besides, when officials didn't alert Tiger to the illegal drop before he finished his round, based on an eyewitness account of a TV replay, the DQ issue was officially dead anyway.
As for those who thought Tiger should've done the "gentlemanly" thing and pulled out of the tournament, as the usually-astute CBS commentator Nick Faldo said (and later recanted), you must be smoking too many azaleas.
"I was ready to play come game time," Woods said.
There was no damage done to the game or the tournament or Tiger's character, only to Tiger's score. And even that will be reduced to nothing if Tiger pulls out the tournament victory and creeps closer to Jack Nicklaus. He has 14 major titles and none were won after he trailed entering the final round. Either that pattern will continue today or Tiger will finally see a breakthrough and go off the script for once. And wouldn't that make this one of the greatest, if not weirdest, Masters of all time?
Who wouldn't watch and marvel at a scenario where Tiger destroys the par-5s and rumbles through the back-nine and overtakes the leaders? There would be nothing more delicious in that 5 p.m. hour, no matter what's for dinner. Golf would be great again, not because Tiger won, not because the rules were squeezed in his favor, but because it would qualify as a moment. And nobody does moments at Augusta like Tiger.
"I'm right there in the ballgame with a great chance to win this championship," he said.
At least we know Woods, to answer the biggest question in golf, is indeed back. After failing to win a major since hitting a fire hydrant and watching his life and body unravel, Tiger suffered through a slow and doubt-filled climb back to No. 1. He'll never be the Tiger from 2002-2008; his body is more vulnerable and his reconstructed swing less of a sure thing. But he doesn't have to be that good. He can be half as good and still put Nicklaus in second place.
In an odd way, Sunday just got more interesting at Augusta. Tiger is in contention and if he wins, he will delight some folks and disgust others. Regardless of what side of the fence you live, can we all hope this goes down to the final shot on the final day with a 15th major title for Tiger hanging in balance? And then, to see Tiger win another green jacket? By one or two strokes?
That'll surely keep a crazy conversation going, like, forever.