By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Neither Tiger Woods nor Masters officials emerged with much credit after a messy resolution to the controversial "penalty drop" affair that sparked widespread debate in the golfing world on Saturday.
World number one Woods, overwhelming favorite to win a fifth green jacket at Augusta National this week, was spared the ignominy of disqualification when the rules committee decided to exercise leniency over his infringement in the second round.
Instead of sending the 14-times champion packing for taking an illegal drop at the par-five 15th after his third shot on Friday had ended up in water, they opted to slap him with a two-stroke penalty.
Fred Ridley, chairman of the Masters competition committee, defended the decision, saying that Woods had been cleared of any wrong-doing after a video review before the American had completed his round.
However, Woods then muddied the waters during his post-round interview when he described in detail how he had gone "two yards further back" for his drop in order to create a better shot.
His admission forced Ridley and company to summon the world number one to Augusta National on Saturday morning to explain his thinking but, at that stage, a disqualification was no longer on the cards.
"We had made a decision before he finished his round ... and I think he's entitled to be protected by 33-7," Ridley said, referring to rule that allows a player to stay in a tournament if an infringement is based on television evidence.
"That's our decision, and others agree with us."
However, there are two big problems here.
First, Woods clearly violated Rule 26-1, which requires a player to drop the ball "as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played", and in most instances that would lead to a DQ.
Several leading players and angered fans populated Twitter-verse on Saturday saying that Woods should have been ousted from the tournament and that his status as the game's top draw had almost certainly saved him.
PGA Tour player Kyle Thompson tweeted: "I guess Tiger is BIGGER than golf. Any other person in the world gets DQ'd. Gotta keep those TV ratings going right?"
There were many calls for Woods to follow the honorable route by falling on his sword and pulling out of the Masters, a move that would have earned him widespread respect in golf as well as a much-needed PR boost.
Though comfortably the greatest player of his generation, Woods has never been a warm figure adored by the fans and is still rebuilding a reputation battered by the revelations of his sordid extra-marital affairs just over three years ago.
Had Woods decided to withdraw from one of the game's biggest events following his unfortunate brush with the rules, he would have earned high praise for living up to golf's valued reputation for honesty and sportsmanship.
Six-times major champion Nick Faldo told Golf Channel: "Our rules are black and white: That is a breach of the rules. Simple as that. He has to sit down quietly and think about this - the mark this will leave on his career, his legacy."
Former world number one David Duval, who has established a reputation for carefully considered opinions since opening a Twitter account, tweeted: "Was there intent to break the rule is the question? I think he should WD. He took a drop to gain an advantage."
There have been several instances over the years of players penalizing, or even disqualifying, themselves.
American Jeff Sluman was two strokes off the lead after the second round of the 1996 Bay Hill Invitational when he withdrew following confusion over what he initially thought was a legal drop at the 17th hole after hitting his ball into water.
The following day, he went out on a cart with a rules official to the same spot and, when neither man could be sure of the legality, Sluman immediately disqualified himself from the tournament.
Just as Woods erred with his drop, an apparently innocent mistake as he mixed up the rule for shot-and-distance relief with line-of-sight relief, so too Masters officials blundered by not speaking to the world number one on Friday.
"There's not a day that goes by that there are not some things I wish I would have done differently," Ridley replied when asked if he should have spoken to Woods before his committee made its initial decision during the second round.
However, Ridley refuted any suggestion that Woods could have received preferential treatment, saying: "All I can say is that unequivocally this tournament is about integrity.
"Our founder Bobby Jones was about integrity, and if this had been John Smith from wherever, he would have gotten the same ruling, because again, it is the right ruling under these circumstances."
It most certainly did not help that the Masters is the only one of the four majors that does not assign rules officials to every group. Rules officials sit on carts at various points around the course and advise players only when summoned.
Reprieved by Rule 33-7, which only came into effect two years ago, Woods survives and remains in contention at the 77th Masters.
Should he go on to win his first major title since the 2008 U.S. Open, however, for many that triumph will be tainted and highlighted with an asterisk.
(Editing by Gene Cherry)