2019 Players Championship: Tiger Woods fails to use golf’s new rules, costing him multiple shots

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Tiger Woods made five birdies and no bogeys on his way to a 1-under 71 in the second round at The Players Championship. A five-birdie, bogey-free day will normally land you somewhere in the mid 60s. That’s probably where Tiger expected to finish on Friday, when he played the course in relatively benign conditions and with fresh greens. He was playing well enough and dialed again during the second round to post something in the mid-60s.

Now for the context: while Tiger avoided the plain old normal bogeys, there was that matter of a quadruple-bogey 7 at the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass, the famous “island” par-3. Island in quotes because, while everyone refers to it as that, it’s actually more of a peninsula, with a narrow walkway coming to the back of the green. That walkway, as it turns out, could have saved Tiger as many as four shots and almost certainly two shots, yielding that number in the 60s his game probably deserved.

Let’s review what actually happened and then what could have been done, had Tiger not been caught up in the heat of the moment and considered all his options.

The mess

The pin position on the 17th on Friday was center-back. The obvious water danger there is flying it too far and having the ball bound off the back, or slowly roll off the back bulkheads into the water. The water did not actually come into play too much on Friday, with Tiger the only player to hit it in the drink in the entire morning wave. Aside from Tiger, almost 100 players rolled through 17 on Friday and avoided the water. Until Kevin Streelman chunked one into the pond just before 5 p.m., Tiger was alone in ignominy.

A tee shot in the water is not a good outcome, but it’s not inexcusable at the 17th. It’s an island hole and it happens. Also, Tiger’s tee shot going in the water was the result of a bad break. It hit harder than expected on these March soft greens. We just hadn’t been seeing those kind of bounces this week.

Where Tiger compounded the excusable mistake was with his second shot at the island target. After the first attempt went in the water, Woods went to the drop zone, which is a down the left side of the hole and a short wedge into the green. Many players avoid the drop zone after hitting their initial tee shot in the water, arguing that it’s a tougher angle and opting to just re-tee again from the tee box. While Tiger caught a bad break on the first tee shot, the shot from the drop zone was just a poor attempt. As he put it, it was hot and flat and went rocketing over the green into the water.

Tiger was now hitting his fifth shot and he had yet to get to the green. His second attempt from the drop zone did land safely and he two-putted for the round-wrecking quadruple bogey 7. He was closing in on the leading scores, which were at 6-under at the time. But the four-shot swing led to an obvious tumble. In one hole, the charge at the top of the leaderboard shifted to a sudden danger of missing the cut.

What no one — especially not Tiger or his caddie Joe LaCava — considered at the time was that the rules in this special circumstance could have saved Tiger as many as those four shots, and not by some longshot miracle “hole-in-three” from the tee box, like we saw from Fred Couples in 1999.

The rules mistake

Tiger’s first tee shot did not land directly in the hazard, or hit off the side of a bulkhead and drop into the water. The ball landed on the back of the green, bounced, and then rolled off the edge lining the pathway behind the green.

The pathway is the key here. That’s a yellow-lined hazard and Tiger had an option to find the point at which it crossed into the hazard, and take a drop in an area on the pathway behind the green and directly on line with the flag. PGA Tour rules chief Mark Russell confirmed to reporters that Woods did have that option. Here’s Russell via GolfChannel.com:

“With the new rule you get a club length on each side so he could have been [just inside the hazard] and gone out a club length and played from there.”

That this never dawned on Tiger or most people watching at the time is not the biggest surprise. We have a very special circumstance here of:

  1. Tiger’s ball rolling off the path and not the side of the green
  2. A new rule that allows you to take a club length from the spot it went in the hazard and allows you to drop straight back from that spot
  3. A new rule that has not been put in practice much, won’t be a natural reflex, and may not be top of mind just two months into a rulebook overhaul
  4. A select pin placement that permitted a drop on a line down the path

Here’s Russell again explaining how this specific pin allowed for that specific relief much closer to the hole than say, the drop zone or re-teeing it.

That was probably the only pin you could have done that because he can keep that point [where the ball went in the hazard] between himself and the hole. It was just that particular situation. He would get a club length to the left if he wanted but he can’t do that because he would have gone in the water.”

That Tiger had this option was buried and largely unknown until Golf Channel’s postgame showed raised it late Friday night. That’s when Brandel Chamblee, David Duval, and Frank Nobilo went down to the 17th green in the darkness to demonstrate what Tiger could have done to mitigate the damage. It was exactly what you want from a postgame show like this. (disclaimer: I have well-documented and long-lasting love affair with Golf Channel’s Live From show — it’s the best). If the words and rules language above confuse you, you would not be alone, so here’s video from Brandel and the crew:

An extremely valuable nugget within that demonstration is David Duval telling us he texted Tiger yesterday and that Woods confirmed he did not know the drop on the pathway was an option. Woods also told reporters he considered re-teeing from the tee box, but opted for the drop zone, saying, “I figured I can handle an 80-yard shot, and obviously I can’t.”

The Cost

We’re now dealing with a what if and we cannot say for sure what Tiger would have made had he taken this option. I suppose he could have duffed some short chip shot or putt from the path into the water, putting him in the same spot as the 80-yard-shot from the drop zone that went in the water. But let’s assume Tiger would not put a second ball in the water from a spot just a few yards off the green — it’s not happening.

A longshot scenario is Tiger holes the chip or putt from the path and makes a par, saving himself four shots. A more likely scenario is Tiger gets up-and-down from that drop spot on the path and saves himself three shots with a bogey 4. The worst-case scenario was probably that he plays onto the green from a few yards away on the path and still needs two putts to get in the hole. But even there, he’s saving himself two shots compared to what happened from the drop zone.

What happens after that is a total guessing game. I’ve seen this characterized at least once as a mistake that “cost him the championship,” which is assuming, well, a lot. A bogey or a double, instead of a quad, maybe propels him onto a greater finish in the second round. Maybe. But even if Tiger plays better on Friday, there was still the matter of Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwod racing out to the 12-under mark later in the day. The implications this had on Tiger’s overall chance at The Players are much harder to guess. Who knows what happens over the remaining Friday round and 36-hole weekend. But what is easier to discern is that Tiger made a mistake at 17 that cost him multiple shots. Those shots would have helped his chances.

The Tiger microscope

There is no disputing this was a mistake by Tiger and his caddie. They got caught up in the moment at one of the game’s more intense and brain-scattering cauldrons — the 17th at TPC Sawgrass. Here’s fellow pro Brad Fritsch:

It’s a mistake, but Tiger was a guinea pig of sorts. This was a rare circumstance with a perfect blend of conditions that gave him this third option.

We pay attention to every single shot Tiger makes, and when he makes his first ever quadruple bogey at The Players, then we’re going to dissect it. This third option reveals itself under that close microscope, one that may not exist if some lesser player hit a couple balls in the water. So Tiger was the guinea pig here and you can bet that no player will ever make this mistake again at the 17th now that Tiger has brought this option to light.

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