Editorial by John Ziegler

How CBS Blew It On the Tiger Woods Controversy

4/14/2013

As a critic of the modern media in general and the sports media in particular, and as a tournament golfer who has played in major golf championships and covered the Masters in person, I took a keen interest the reaction to the Tiger Woods “drop gate” controversy. I was suspicious that the unique conflicts of interests inherent in the relationship between the golf media and Augusta National Golf Club would create a stunting of the coverage of this major story and, unfortunately, my concerns were more than warranted.

 

Before I get into how CBS specifically blew it on this saga, let me first provide the details on what actually happened.

While leading the tournament on Friday, Tiger hit what appeared to be a perfect third shot into the par 5 15th green until it hit the flag stick and caromed off the green and into the pond in front of the hole. It was a crushingly bad break even before the chaos that the ensuing chain of events would create overnight because it turned a probable birdie into a situation where he would have to struggle for a bogie.

At that point Tiger had three basic options. He could go to the drop area in front of the pond, he could keep the point where the ball entered the water between him and the hole and drop as far back as he wanted, or he could replay the shot as close as possible from the previous spot.

It appeared at the time that Tiger decided to take the third option and replay the shot. He seemed to do so perfectly as he hit the ball to three feet from the hole and appeared to make a spectacular bogie six on the hole.

However, after the round Tiger told reporters something which proved that his drop broke the rules. Tiger said: "I went down to the drop area, that wasn't going to be a good spot, because obviously it's into the grain and it was a little bit wet. So it was muddy and not a good spot to drop. So I went back to where I played it from, but I went two yards farther back and I tried to take two yards off the shot of what I felt I hit."

The key portion there is “two yards farther back.” Tiger essentially (and apparently unwittingly) admitted that he purposely did NOT drop the ball as close as possible to the previous spot. Video of his fifth shot clearly shows that he was indeed about two yards behind the divot that his third shot created.

Ironically, if Tiger had never mentioned this in the interview after the round, not only would no one have noticed, but I would have among those who strongly objected to the notion of him being penalized at all for having taken the exact same drop. This is because the drop itself was actually theoretically okay (though it was on the borderline) because the rule book does not state a specific distance from the previous spot that is unacceptable. It only says as “near as possible.”

The problem is that Tiger’s post round comments made it clear that he purposely and with the intent of gaining a competitive advantage did NOT drop his ball as near as possible to the previous spot.

Unfortunately, because this mistake was not immediately known it was not corrected before Woods signed his scorecard. This meant that, if was later deemed that his drop was illegal, his scorecard would then be incorrect and in 100 percent of similar cases in the history of golf, the only remedy for that situation is disqualification.

When I first learned of this situation as it exploded on twitter late Friday evening, it seemed very clear to me that, by rule, Tiger would have to be removed from the world’s most prestigious tournament. However, I was also well aware that the decision would cause enormous controversy and that Augusta National may be tempted to find some sort of loophole in order to avoid what would be a catastrophe for the weekend television ratings (as I have written about previously, tournament officials have been known to bend the rules dramatically in Tiger’s direction).

As it turns out, Augusta National did exactly that in a way that would make a high-priced criminal defense attorney proud. They decided that Tiger did in fact break the rules and issued him a two-shot penalty, but then did a series of legalistic gymnastics in order to rationalize that he should not be disqualified. 

They cited Rule 33-7 parts of which had been instituted recently in order to give tournament committees some discretion over whether signing an incorrect scorecard might not result in disqualification in “exceptional” cases. This was done for very clear and specific reasons after a rash of “high definition television” rulings created circumstances where players were being disqualified for violations which were beyond their powers of perception. It is obvious from reading the “rationale” and “examples” behind the adoption of Rule 33-7 that it specifically says basic rule situations like Tiger’s should NOT be eligible for the disqualification exemption.

Using Rule 33-7 to get the metaphorical camel’s nose under the tent, they then went about finding their “exceptional” circumstances. They said that they had made an initial “investigation” into the matter while Tiger was still on the course and that had determined, without the benefit of his post round “confession,” that no rule had been broken.

They then used this preliminary “not guilty” verdict as a way to “block” the disqualification remedy under the perfectly logical concept that it would not be fair to punish a player for not reporting a violation that the officials themselves deemed to not be an actual infraction.

However, there is a major problem with this line of thinking: they never spoke to Tiger about this until the following day. Therefore, their initial investigation was effectively irrelevant because it was not as if Tiger thought or asked about a potential infraction and was told he was in the clear before he signed his card. Had that happened, then the Masters would have been obviously correct in not later instituting a disqualification. But, for some odd reason (a rules official being too intimidated by Tiger to bother bringing up a subject that didn’t seem to be sure penalty?), they did not. This vital detail should have deflated the legalistic life raft that they were furiously constructing, but obviously that didn’t happen.

The ultimate “proof” that the ruling was wrong was that, after Woods finished his third round, he openly admitted that he had “made a mistake” with the drop and deserved the penalty. Sadly, no one in the press bothered to ask him the obvious next question which should have been, “if you made a mistake with the drop, then why shouldn’t you have been disqualified?” After all, making a “mistake” in the way you implement a drop is NOT supposed to be covered under Rule 33-7, which is clearly intended for situations where the player could not have possibly known they were in violation of the rules.

Here is the key provision: "A Committee would not be justified under Rule 33-7 in waiving or modifying the disqualification penalty prescribed in Rule 6-6d if the competitor's failure to include the penalty stroke(s) was a result of either ignorance of the Rules or of facts that the competitor could have reasonably discovered prior to signing and returning his score card."

This brings us to how CBS handled the situation when their Masters telecast finally began Saturday afternoon. They should get high marks for not trying to avoid the subject and for detailing the controversy extensively right from the start of the broadcast. Jim Nantz did a somewhat acceptable job (graded on a curve considering Augusta National’s well documented history of severely punishing commentators for sparking the ire of the club’s membership) of questioning the official who made the decision.

However, CBS never highlighted either of the key points which would have shed a totally different light on the controversy. They never even mentioned that Rule 33-7 was clearly never intended to cover such circumstances and they didn’t explain the significance of Tiger not being spoken to by officials before he signed his scorecard.

Then there was the completely bizarre behavior of lead CBS analyst Nick FaldoIn the morning while on The Golf Channel, Faldo was about as strong on this issue as anyone could possibly imagine. He expressed palpable disgust with the ruling and openly called on Tiger to do the “manly thing” and withdraw from the tournament immediately.

Knowing that CBS has been famously hesitant to criticize the Masters, I was sure there was no chance that Faldo would make the same case on the network telecast, but even I was completely shocked and appalled by Faldo’s dramatic change of heart.

He meekly claimed that he had, sort of, changed his mind because he had learned more about the timeline and about the preliminary investigation that had been done while Tiger was still on the course (it was unclear to me whether Faldo was aware that Tiger was not actually spoken to about this at that time, a key fact that many people, including some players who were asked about the incident, had a misimpression about).

It was all a bit like watching Rush Limbaugh rip President Obama on his radio show in the morning and then see him praising him on the same issue via MSNBC in the afternoon.

Faldo wasn’t the only CBS commentator to have a sudden change of heart. David Feherty was the first on television (via Friday’s late night highlight show) to suggest that Tiger had definitely broken a rule and that he very well could be disqualified. Then, during Saturday’s telecast he strongly implied that if you thought that Tiger should have been disqualified that you were wrong because so many people in the gallery were happy to see him play.

Saturday night Feherty tweeted, “To all who don’t get 33-7, Sorry. There is no cure for stupid.”

I immediately responded with a very legitimate offer of $10,000 for his Troops First Foundation if he could simply explain how Tiger’s situation fit within the written “rationale” of the rule, but, not surprisingly, I haven’t gotten a response. Considering Feherty was on the call for Tiger’s drop fiasco and badly butchered the description of what his options were, I am quite confident that he has never read the important details behind 33-7, which make it irrelevant to this case.

The problem here is far bigger than whether or not Tiger Woods should have been disqualified from a golf tournament. In the era of modern media the issue of conflicts of interest have never been more pronounced and their corrosive impact can been seen all over the coverage of this story. The situation is also emblematic of how we now live in a culture where, thanks largely to the media’s obsessive drive for ratings, what is popular (as Feherty articulated during Saturday’s broadcast) is deemed to be inherently “good” and more important than what is right.

There is no more incestuous relationship in all the media than that between CBS and Augusta National Golf Club (this is true of all golf media for whom the club provides the cherished opportunity to play the course the day after the tournament). The club famously renews its contract each year so that it maintains constant leverage over the network, allowing it to rule the content of the telecast with an iron fist. Bob Costas even criticized CBS just this week for having been notoriously soft on the club’s history of racism and sexism.

It is very obvious that the ghost of Gary McCord (who was banned for life from the Masters because he said the greens on the course had been “bikini waxed”) haunted all of those involved in the CBS coverage of this story. This resulted in their commentators losing any semblance of courage (which is already in shorter supply among members of the golf media than poor people in the Augusta gallery) and created a day that was at least as sad for what is left of sports journalism as it was for golf.  

 

 

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