That line of thinking might sound reasonable if not for the holier-than-thou attitude that inevitably goes along with it. Golfers fetishize their adherence to the rules of the game, even—especially—the ones that don’t make sense. In 2010, Brian Davis cost himself a chance to win a PGA tournament when he called a penalty on himself for hitting a loose reed during his backswing. After the event, Davis was lauded for his honesty and compared to the great Bobby Jones, who gave himself a penalty in the 1925 U.S. Open when—out of sight of anyone else—he accidentally moved his ball a tiny bit. “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank,” Jones said afterwards, deflecting the praise.
This is a golfer’s sense of proportionality: hitting a loose reed is no different than putting a hit on someone. Golfers are the opposite of conscientious objectors—they do whatever the rule makers tell them, with nary a thought given to what the rule is or why it exists. It’s a line of thinking that leads a 14-year-old to get knocked a stroke for slow play, and to a guy like Brian Davis getting hailed for his scruples. Instead of celebrating Davis, his fellow pros and golf fans everywhere should have been outraged that he’d been forced to penalize himself for doing something so inconsequential. (If he hadn’t done it, you know some narc watching on TV would’ve called it in.) Brian Davis hit a reed with his backswing—a reed! He shouldn’t have been a hero. He should’ve been a martyr.
But this is a sport that too often traffics in self-congratulation, and that prizes tradition over fairness. Recall that the Masters’ rules police concluded that Tiger hadn’t screwed up, then changed their minds after he signed his card. For the crime of doing what the game’s biggest sticklers believed to be correct, Brad Faxon and his grass-stained ilk would argue, Woods should do the right thing and commit seppuku with his pitching wedge.
Quitting when he doesn’t have to, though, would just be moral grandstanding. For all of his faults, Tiger Woods isn’t afflicted with the pathology that so many of his fellow golfers share: the need to feel morally superior. After he finished his round on Saturday, the little-known John Peterson said that if he’d been the one to make an illegal drop, “They would have disqualified me.” Maybe so. But if Tiger’s fame saved him from golf’s pedantry, that’s not a crime against the sport. Rather, it’s a move that should be made more often, and a giant step forward for a game that doesn’t need any more Roberto De Vicenzos.
Correction, April 13, 2013: This article originally stated that Roberto De Vicenzo was disqualified from the 1968 Masters. He was penalized one stroke, which led to him losing the tournament.