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James Lawton: Tiger Woods has missed a golden opportunity to do the right thing – he should have walked


There was for the briefest time here yesterday a feeling that Tiger Woods might do something more valuable than he had ever done before on or around a golf course.

It was something that might never have been surpassed by even the most sublime performance – certainly not his belligerent, at times brilliant tracking of the leaders in a third-round two-under-par 70.

It was that having been found guilty of breaking the rules – the ones he argued for so staunchly 24 hours earlier in the case of the 14-year-old Chinese prodigy Tianlang Guan – he should take the action that many believed would have been automatically imposed upon almost any other member of his sport's elite.

The feeling did not last long. It barely survived a brush with Tiger's entourage, among whom the idea might have been beamed from outer space. It was officially killed off when Woods tweeted that he respected the decision of the Augusta National committee to give him a two-stroke penalty for dropping his ball two yards from one of the three places that would have conformed to the once sacred principles of golf law.

What the Tiger should have done, of course, was not offer a pleasantry to the men who had pushed him further back on the scoreboard of a tournament he seemed to be about to engulf before the fateful incident at the 15th hole on Friday.

He should have walked. He should have reminded himself of that ancient but suddenly endangered golf belief that when you cheat, consciously or not, you are doing it to no one more profoundly than yourself.

Even before Woods went to the first tee of the third round yesterday, there was an ugly if not overwhelming swell of opinion that sooner or later he would come to regret his decision to press on with his attempt to win his first major title in five years and his first green jacket in eight. Sir Nick Faldo, who won here three times, was talking of a stain that would seep into the Tiger's reputation, however well he kept rebuilding his reputation as both a golfer and a man.

Dan Jenkins, the wry and often iconoclastic golf writer and novelist, said, "It is commonly understood in this game that if you sign a wrong card you are gone. Tiger knows that belief but he has chosen to ignore it. If he should win, after going five shots back with the ruling, it will surely have a very big asterisk."

Yesterday it was a dark cloud rather than an asterisk overshadowing the superb resurrection that has restored Woods to the world No 1 ranking – and persuaded many hard judges that he may indeed regain the momentum to carry him past Jack Nicklaus's all-time mark of 18 major titles. With 14 wins, Tiger has showed much of that confidence which was so withering to his rivals during his great ascendency.

Here, there indeed seemed to be evidence that he might again dominate the great tournaments in the way he did before his life and his game began to unravel with revelations of serial philandering.

The greatest irony of all in the current mishap is that it came at almost precisely the moment he had exquisitely re-established the aura that was once almost routine, when he proceeded around Amen Corner in a red shirt on a Sunday afternoon.

His shot to the 15th green was so perfectly judged and executed that it might well have been his eagerness to reproduce it – after the ball had hit the pin and flown into the water – that made him forgetful of the drop rules. In fact it was his elaborate explanation of why he had moved so far from the place he had struck the original shot that alerted the rules committee to the need to re-investigate the incident.

By then, though, Tiger had signed his card. Also fatefully, perhaps, yesterday he chose to ignore the possibility of a gesture that for many would have confirmed the strength of his effort to fully rehabilitate himself in the minds of both golf aficionados and the wider public.

The effort has been growing in force. Before this tournament he spoke of his efforts to bond with his young children in the wake of the divorce that followed the revelations about his private life. His game has mostly crackled with authority. But yesterday it was impossible not to believe he had missed the chance to make a powerful statement about his sense of what is right and wrong on the golf course.

The hope that he might make such a gesture was maybe encouraged by the sense that few golfers have ever understood the rules of the game more acutely – or been more willing to exploit them to his own benefit. There was the classic example of this when he was still the emerging young titan of the game 14 years ago at the Phoenix Open.

Then, he checked with a rules official that a boulder hindering his stroke was indeed a moveable impediment. The official agreed and Woods promptly recruited a squad of beefy spectators to push away the rock. He found the green and made a birdie.

Yesterday, you had to believe he made a less impressive decision.