Tiger Woods' mistake easy to make

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- The marketing campaign surrounding the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship didn't suddenly shut down Saturday, even though the tournament's two headliners were missing.

Billboards still littered the city and lined the main road to the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, promoting the "Return of The Giants."

Of course, those giants were long gone, No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy's week cut short after a disappointing start to his new era as a Nike endorser and No. 2 Tiger Woods stunningly out of the tournament after a rules violation that caused him to miss the 36-hole cut by a single stroke.

If either player were looking for sympathy, well, this is part of golf.

McIlroy is not the first to struggle with new equipment, nor will he be the last.

"The way it's gone won't feel good to him because of the spotlight and the pressure," said three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, who has had experience with changing equipment. "But he's got four weeks now to figure it out."

Harrington also has experience with rules violations, and Woods' exit because of a 2-stroke penalty was still a big subject at the tournament where Tiger tied for third a year ago.

In short, Woods -- who shot 72-75, thus missing the cut, and will make his PGA Tour debut next week at the Farmers Insurance Open -- took relief when the rules didn't allow it, although many players suggested it was not an easy issue. A close look at the area on the fifth hole where Woods' ball plugged beneath vegetation that was determined to be sand would not necessarily lead to that conclusion upon first glance.

"I tried to do the same thing in Dubai two years ago," said Harrington, who was stopped from doing so by a rules official who, at first, mistakenly believed he was entitled to a drop.

Rule 25-2 stipulates that balls embedded in closely mowed areas are entitled to relief, or a free drop. The various tours typically extend this rule to "through the green," which as European Tour rules official Andy McFee explained means "everywhere on the golf course except hazards. But it's very specific; and it refers to ground other than sand."

Woods, apparently, didn't realize his ball was embedded in sand. He asked playing partner Martin Kaymer for his opinion, and the German agreed the ball was embedded. So Woods didn't summon a rules official, took a drop and played on.

It was later discovered by the rules committee what Woods had done, and determined that his ball was in sand and that a free drop was not allowed. He either needed to play the ball or take an unplayable lie, which would have meant a 1-stroke penalty. By doing neither, Woods was given a 2-stroke penalty.

"I wouldn't have been really sure in his situation either," said veteran European Tour player Thomas Bjorn. "If it was plain sand, I would have known I couldn't drop it. It's one of those things that you really don't think of it when it's in a bush that it's part of a waste area. It's a mistake a lot of guys could make.

"It's just one of those things. You think you're doing the right thing. He asked his playing partner, and he felt the same. He just made a mistake. And it's not even a mistake. He infringed the rules without thinking he did. It's one of those things."

"I wouldn't have been confident either way, to be honest with you," said tournament leader Justin Rose, the fifth-ranked player in the world, whose 69 gave him a 2-shot advantage on Jamie Donaldson and Thorbjorn Olesen after 54 holes. "There's a lot of sand out here, probably a good week to refresh your memory. But I probably wouldn't have been confident enough to say, yes, that's embedded, take a drop. It's very difficult."

As for a good number of peers being unclear on the rule, Harrington quipped: "A lot of times, as professional golfers, we assume that our fellow pros know what they are doing."

Making the situation more difficult is that it's one of the rare times when professionals play under a different set of rules than amateurs.

Typically, the embedded ball rule applies only to closely mown areas, meaning the fairway or shaved areas around the green. In an amateur event, for example, Woods never could have considered relief from where his ball came to rest.

But, as McFee pointed out, all the major tours allow an exception that is in the R&A and USGA rulebooks, one that states that the embedded ball rule can be played through the green, or everywhere but hazards -- including sand, the key point in Woods' case.


"The pros have a little bit of influence," Harrington said. "We feel it would be unfair [for the ball] to be plugged. Plus, it helps us play professional tournaments when the weather isn't great. It helps us get through events we have to get through."

Yet it remains confusing.

"I think I'm probably up there with anybody else when it comes to the rules, and I didn't know when it happened to me," Harrington said. "It's a really, really strange one, though. You can be in loose soil; you can be in shrubbery; you can be in bushes.

"The vegetation is the problem. If he was in the complete loose sand, you'd say, 'Wait a second.' But because it's vegetation, just because it's softer under that vegetation, you have no idea. I'd say it happens much more often than you think."

All of which is likely little consolation to Woods. And certainly not to title sponsor HSBC, which paid out a tidy sum in appearance fees and saw the biggest name in the game bounced from the tournament.