Busting on 21 — and winning

Golf is not a sport that tolerates poor on-course behavior as a general rule. Even as Tiger Woods began his latest revitalization with a fourth-place finish at the Masters, new reports of him spitting on the course have him under the microscope for the wrong reasons again.

But with what happened to Rory McIlroy on the back nine Sunday at Augusta, I’m sure he would have been allowed a hat toss, broken club or some choice words uttered at the golfing gods or himself.

When McIlroy knocked his tee shot on No. 13 into a creek, he knew his shot to win was finally over and quietly let it show.

Holding a one-shot lead heading to No. 10 after spending the tournament at the top of the leaderboard — including a four-shot lead to start the day — the 21-year-old McIlroy proceeded to shoot plus-seven over the final nine holes to go from perhaps imagining Phil Mickelson slipping the jacket onto him to just wishing for it to be over before it got any worse.

A triple bogey at 10 after his drive hit a tree — the first of two McIlroy shots on the hole to hit a tree — and wound up between cabins far from the fairway. A three-putt bogey on 11; a four-putt double bogey on 12. Suddenly he went from being in control to needing a miracle and almost perfect play just to stay in contention.

His next shot was a drive that ensured  his demise was complete. By then, the tournament had gotten so interesting for so many other golfers that on the television broadcast his cut-ins were more purely for information than for gawkery. Yes, McIlroy’s still out of it. Now here are seven or eight other golfers who aren’t.

Being in the final group, he finished up his final round of 80 with all eyes back on him, and then came what he had to have been dreading most — the post-match greenside interview. What would he say? How would he react? He had shown emotion, reacted to shots by burying his face in his arm, and in many ways held it together through the end of the round.

But now it was over, he’d signed the odious scorecard, and all there was left to do was reflect on one of the biggest meltdowns in sports in front of a live national audience of about 10 million viewers.

What happened next was perhaps the ultimate irony, one which could signify that there were indeed lessons to be learned from this disaster. Sure, McIlroy had had something similar happen in last year’s British Open with an 80 after an opening-round 63. But that was the second round. This was the final round, the final nine holes of a major.

Despite having just had one of the most embarrassing moments of his brief career on one of the biggest stages, McIlroy handled the aftermath in a way which seems to indicate that hell be back … and on the right side of things.

And just as he had fallen apart on the course, he kept his composure off of it. He handled the questions like a veteran, answered them with wisdom beyond his years and insisted he’d learn from this and get better, be more prepared the next time he was in that situation.

That’s exactly why he very likely will be in that situation again, and I for one hope so. I remember hearing people around the office talking about his early Augusta rounds and how unimpressed they were with what they considered an almost cocky demeanor. I hadn’t noticed it myself, but he basically had to be anything but cocky after he came off the course Sunday.

He drew an ovation from those fans on the veranda at the clubhouse as he returned, people appreciating the poise he’d shown in closing out the round and conducting himself after that he hadn’t been able to translate to his golf game during the day. It was well-earned all around, and what earned it could eventually earn him a winner’s ovation down the road.

Golf clap

There’s likely no sport as rooted in its origins and tied to the past as golf. Recent events that could only occur in the 21st century are forcing changes that are likely long overdue.

Twice already in this young season, golfers have been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. The scorecard itself wasn’t really the issue at hand, but it’s the penalty that the PGA had to enforce after infractions were spotted — by sharp-eyed television viewers who contacted the appropriate tour officials to turn them in.

Padraig Harrington was disqualified after a 7-under par opening round at the European Tour’s HSBC Championship almost three weeks ago after a close-up and slow-motion instant replay showed he touched his ball slightly while marking it on the green and it did not return to its original spot after moving. Someone watching on TV e-mailed the tour to alert officials.

That came a week after Camilo Villegas was bounced for a bad scorecard from the PGA’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions after unknowingly committing a two-stroke penalty of swatting away loose debris near him when his chip shot to the 15th green failed to get there and, for the second time, rolled down a steep hill back to the waiting Villegas.

The former incident disturbed me more after finding out that someone watching on the Golf Channel spotted the mistake and spent some time trying to contact the PGA through its website and even Twitter. He ultimately got his message to a golf official through a friend of his — in the media. Very few things would get me involved in a story, and this definitely doesn’t qualify in my book.

Nonetheless, both incidents led to disqualifications because the players had no idea they were committing an infraction, finished their rounds and signed their scorecards, and then were penalized after the fact thanks to TV viewers and had the “incorrect scorecard” rule invoked.

Fundamentally I think instant replay in sports is simply something that will come to pass across the board, and is already used in several instances. It’s a technology that wasn’t available before that enables the game in question to have the most equitable outcome by assisting game officials to make sure the call is right.

But does this apply to thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of viewers at home having the ability to affect the outcome of sporting events just because they’re almost anally acquainted with the rules of the game? Apparently for now.

The good news is that at least the Powers That Be in the golfing world sense that some aspect of the current situation has to be changed, even if it’s not necessarily the most pertinent. Rules makers with both the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the United States Golf Association are looking into possibly changing the rules so that if a TV watcher wants to blow the whistle on an unsuspecting golfer it won’t automatically means a disqualification because of his or her scorecard.

“If you couldn’t have known that you had incurred a penalty, disqualification does seem inequitable,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. “And, because we are getting more and more of these incidents, that penalty is coming more and more into focus.

“We still think there should be a penalty for getting your score wrong. But, as I said, we think disqualification is too severe.”

From this and other comments from officials, it seems clear that viewers may still continue to have the power to affect the outcome of golf events. The possibility of incurring a multiple-stroke penalty, but still being able to complete the tournament, seems the most likely scenario. Harrington and others have acknowledged that they’re happy to know people are watching at all.

“I’m comfortable with the whole idea that there’s people there watching, and I believe when I’m on the golf course I’m not going to do anything untoward,” Harrington said. “I hope that this many people watch The European Tour. I hope there’s 100 million people watching me play and checking me out. It’s good for the game.”

Whether or not those fans calling in to rat you out for something you didn’t even know you did is good for the game is up for debate. But at least if they keep doing it, it won’t automatically mean disqualification for any player, no matter how minor the infraction.

Tiger, Tiger, blowing up bright

We may learn an awful lot about Tiger Woods in the upcoming weeks, even more than we thought we did last winter.

This weekend’s debacle at Bridgestone taught us a few things. Apparently, when Tiger is in the process of shooting his worst weekend of golf as a professional, he’ll do things his legions of fans have never seen before — like give up.

Part of the reason he closed out his tournament at 18 over par and 30 shots behind winner Hunter Mahan was because he was flailing — first while trying, then while just trying to get away. To see him walk up to a shot and hit it without sizing it up from every angle, or even giving it a second thought, was amazing. To see him do it multiple times was even more shocking.

Tiger Woods is coming off his worst showing as a pro and looks like anything but the No. 1 player in the world, even though he still is for now.

He didn’t talk to the media until after the final round, and admitted then he’s not having fun. Well duh, as you say, shooting 18-over is never fun. Neither is all the stuff he’s going through in his personal life, the divorce that can’t be a surprise considering he brought it on himself with his extramarital dalliances.

But the golf course, or any field a professional athlete has performed on, has always been the refuge of those who try to escape their off-the-field issues. It’s where they’re most comfortable, the place where they truly belong and can forget about all the distractions and get down to business.

But Tiger did anything but, and this past weekend was just the most glaring example. The thought that he’s shot just two rounds under par in his last 17 on the course is hard to comprehend, and that he stands 85th on the money list this year is part of the result. CBS, which usually only televises the final few hours that involve those in contention, has to be sweating over the fact that it hasn’t had him on a final-round telecast in two months.

It seems like a break from the game might be in order, but he’s committed to some upcoming tournaments, including this week’s PGA Championship — which is often one of the highest-scoring tournaments on the calendar and isn’t likely to do wonders for his confidence. The last time he shot four rounds over par was at the 2003 PGA.

But would a break even help at this point? Maybe so, considering how lost and unhappy he looked at a course he’s dominated over the years. He’ll probably get one come October, since Corey Pavin would be hard-pressed to include him on the Ryder Cup roster with his recent play and current mental state.

I find it odd that so many people are worried about whether he’ll be part of the Ryder Cup team. That would seem to be the least of his concerns with everything else going on, and it looks like the team would be better off without him right now. Sure it might seem shocking to say, but the mental state he’s shown on the course isn’t one that seems ready for the demands of the jingoistic us vs. them showdown to take place in Wales in two months’ time.

I’ve never been a big fan of Tiger, as I’ve rarely been a fan of the favorite, of anyone who makes the outcome seem predetermined and seldom lets anyone get a win in edgewise. In some bizarre way, maybe this is good for him. He’s just finished doing something that almost every other pro golfer has done at one point or another in his career — put together a terrible tournament. The fact that it was at one of the rare tournaments without a cut only exacerbated the situation, forcing him to play four rounds instead of what would easily have been only two almost any other week.

This, far more than the scripted admission and apology and all the other carefully controlled aspects of his public attempts at redemption, prove he’s actually a human being after all. That’s what I wanted to see more than anything, that he’s more than the trophy-claiming automaton he’s seemed for so much of his career. Now he can better understand how the other half — heck, just about the rest of the tour — lives.

The scene in the post-tournament press conference where a media member said he and many of his colleagues were surprised by Tiger’s performance, but just as surprised that Tiger wasn’t, was telling. When asked why, Tiger quickly responded, “It’s been a long year.”

It looks like that year might get longer before it’s over. But when it is, maybe Tiger will be more prepared to take on the 2011 season — and the rest of his life.