MASTERS: Tiger survives costly penalty — and he’s still lurking

Fans cheer on Tiger Woods as he walks to the first tee Saturday morning before the third round of the Masters. Woods awoke Saturday to find out he had been assessed a two-shot penalty stemming from an illegal drop in Friday’s second round.

Fans cheer on Tiger Woods as he walks to the first tee Saturday morning before the third round of the Masters. Woods awoke Saturday to find out he had been assessed a two-shot penalty stemming from an illegal drop in Friday’s second round.

AUGUSTA — One rule knocked Tiger Woods out of the Top 10 heading into Saturday’s third round at the Masters.

Another rule kept the world’s No.1 player alive for a shot at a fifth green jacket.

Moving Day at Augusta National got under way early when Woods was assessed a two-shot penalty Saturday morning for an improper drop Friday on the 15th hole, but he was saved from disqualification under Rule 33-7, which protects golfers should the Rules Committee change its mind after a player signs a scorecard.

Rules Committee Chairman Fred Ridley said Woods, who dropped from tied for seventh at 3-under to tied for 20th at 1-under before even teeing off Saturday, was never in danger of being disqualified.

“It was really a matter of understanding what was going through his mind and what his intent was in playing his shot to determine whether he was going to get a penalty at all,” Ridley said. “It was either no penalty or a two-shot penalty, but disqualification (Saturday) morning was not even on the table.”

Woods, who birdied three of his final eight holes Saturday to move right back where he ended Friday — 3-under — and in a tie for seventh place, would be just two shots off the lead if it weren’t for Friday’s error.

Woods was charging toward the top of the leaderboard Friday afternoon before his third shot at the par 5 15th hit the flag stick and rolled back into the water, forcing him to take a penalty shot and a drop. After deciding the drop area was in poor condition, Woods returned to the initial spot of his third shot in the 15th fairway but dropped the ball several feet behind his original divot.

“I wasn’t even really thinking,” Woods said. “I was still a little ticked at what happened, and I was just trying to figure, OK, I need to take some yardage off this shot, and that’s all I was thinking about was trying to make sure I took some yardage off of it, and evidently, it was pretty obvious, I didn’t drop in the right spot.”

The penalty went unnoticed for hours until a television viewer called CBS to report the violation, and CBS relayed the message to the Rules Committee, which reviewed the incident late Friday night, taking into account a comment from Woods where he said he “tried to take two yards off the shot.”

“And during that interview Tiger had indicated that he had taken a couple of extra yards, I think were his words,” Ridley said. “And based on that, it raised some concerns in our minds.”

Woods returned to Augusta early Saturday to review the tape with the Rules Committee after being made aware of the situation by his agent Mark Steinberg.

“I didn’t know there was an issue until I looked at my phone and saw (Steinberg) texted me and said, ‘Give me a shout,’ ” Woods said. “I gave him a shout (Saturday) morning, and he said, ‘Fred (Ridley) wants to talk to you.’ I’m like, OK, so I called up Freddie, and he explained the whole situation, says come on in and let’s talk about it, so I did, and we went through the whole process from there.”

Woods said he never considered disqualifying himself for signing an incorrect scorecard — which is usually an automatic DQ.

“Under the rules of golf I can play,” he said. “If it was done a year or two ago, whatever, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play. But the rules have changed, and under the rules of golf I was able to play.”

Others around the golfing world weren’t so understanding, including Golf Channel analyst and three-time Masters champ Nick Faldo, who called for Woods to bow out of the tournament.

“For me, this is dreadful. Absolutely, no intention to drop this as close as possible. Simply, a breach of rules,” Faldo said. “The rules of golf are black and white, and Tiger broke them. He’s admitted he broke them. He should stand up and earn himself some brownie points and say to all his fellow professionals, ‘I’ve broken the rules, I’m going home and I will see you next week.’ He should consider the mark this will leave on his legacy.”

In past years, Woods’ infraction would have resulted in disqualification because he signed a scorecard that later turned out to be incorrect, but Rule 33-7, which was added as a revision two years ago, protected him from that outcome, and many thought Faldo’s criticism crossed the line.

“I think that’s probably a little harsh, disqualifying himself,” said Sandy Lyle, the 1988 Masters champ and 2012 inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame. “I mean, I might have fallen for the same trap myself of maybe dropping the ball back a few yards maybe to get a flatter lie or something like that.”

The drama didn’t seem to upset Woods, who went about his normal, pre-round routine and then opened the day with a birdie on No. 1.

“(Everything was) normal, just when I go into the gym,” Woods said. “Got all activated and ready to go, and once I came to the golf course I was ready to play.”

He made the turn at 1-under and bogeyed No. 11 to fall to even-par but then caught fire on the final seven holes and birdied Nos. 12, 13 and 15. He had an eight-footer for eagle on the 15th but rolled it just wide of the hole — one of several makeable putts that Woods missed in his third round.

Despite the struggles on the green and the two-shot penalty, Woods remains in contention for his first major title in almost five years.

“(Saturday) started off obviously different, but I’m right there in the ballgame,” he said. “As of right now, I’m four back with a great shot to win this championship.”

Roaring back at Augusta National is nothing new for Woods, who trailed by six strokes after 36 holes before winning in 2005. He is one of 15 Masters champions who trailed by five or more shots after the second round and is looking to slip on the green jacket again after trailing by five before Saturday’s round.

Many of the golfers had already started their rounds as news spread around the course that Woods had been penalized, but almost everybody had an opinion as they stepped off No. 18 — and most were in Woods’ corner.

“It was one of those things where he took a drop that he felt was right,” Georgia grad and defending Masters champ Bubba Watson said. “He wasn’t trying to cheat anybody. He thought it was right. And unfortunate for him that he got a two-shot penalty. But fortunate for him that he’s still playing.”

Most players thought the Rules Committee got it right, too.

“I feel like they were by the book, and Tiger being Tiger, he’s as up and up with the rules as anybody,” Lucas Glover said. “I feel like if he felt like he really, really messed up, then he would have — he’s always done the up and up thing with the rules, and he’s always been a stickler for the rules and a traditionalist for the game.”

Ridley never entertained the idea that Woods cheated.

“Intent to violate the rules or knowledge of violating the rules was really not an issue here,” Ridley said. “It was clear in my mind, as I said, Tiger could not have been more candid. His candor was clear and it helped us make a decision and it helped us make the right decision.”

Ridley later said that Woods didn’t gain any preferred treatment because of his celebrity status.

“All I can say is that, unequivocally, this tournament is about integrity,” Ridley said. “Our founder, Bobby Jones, was about integrity, and if this had been John Smith from wherever, that he would have gotten the same ruling, because again, it is the right ruling under these circumstances.”