AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Tiger Woods ended a turbulent Saturday, both on and off the golf course, close enough to the leaders at the Masters but will have to negotiate uncharted territory in his bid to win a 15th major title.
Never before has the American triumphed at a major when trailing after the third round, though the frontrunners will be well aware of his huge comfort level at a venue where he has already claimed four green jackets.
“I’m right there in the ball game,” world number one Woods told reporters after shooting a two-under-par 70 on a tricky day for scoring at a sun-baked, fast-running Augusta National.
“As of right now I’m four back with a great shot to win this championship.”
However, Woods very nearly had no shot to win the 77th Masters after being investigated by officials for an illegal penalty drop he took at the par-five 15th during Friday’s second round.
Because that investigation began before Woods had completed the round, disqualification was ruled out as a sanction but he was slapped with a two-stroke penalty after committee chairman Fred Ridley spoke to him earlier on Saturday.
“I didn’t know there was an issue until I looked at my phone and saw Steinie (his manager Mark Steinberg) texted me,” Woods explained.
“I gave him a shout this morning, and he said, ‘Fred wants to talk to you.’ I’m like, ‘Okay.’
“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,” he added, after ending the third round with a three-under total of 213, four behind pacesetting American Brandt Snedeker and Argentina’s Angel Cabrera.
Woods, who has not won a Masters title since 2005, suffered an unfortunate bounce with his third shot at 15 on Friday when his approach struck the flags tick before ricocheting backwards off the green and then down the slope into Rae’s Creek.
Instead of going to the drop area on the far side of the water, he chose to play his fifth shot from the same place as his third, going two yards back before getting up and down from there to salvage a bogey six.
“I wasn’t even really thinking,” Woods said of his improper penalty drop which violated Rule 26-1 requiring a player to drop the ball “as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball” was last played.
“I was still a little ticked at what happened, and I was just trying to figure, okay, I need to take some yardage off this shot.
“And that’s all I was thinking about... evidently, it was pretty obvious, I didn’t drop in the right spot.”
The decision by Ridley and his committee to spare Woods the ignominy of disqualification was based on Rule 33-7, which came into effect only two years ago and gives discretionary powers if an infringement is based on television evidence.
Woods’ reprieve sparked instant and heated debate, leading players expressing split views with many calling for the world number one to withdraw from the tournament on principle.
Asked whether he felt he should have pulled out, Woods replied: “If it was done a year or two ago, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play. But the rules have changed, and under the rules of golf I was able to play.”
Though clearly distracted by the rules debate earlier in the day, Woods said he had been able to adjust swiftly to on-course matters once he began warming up for the third round.
“It was normal, I (re-focused) when I go into the gym,” the 14-times major champion added. “Got all activated and ready to go, and once I came to the golf course I was ready to play.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Steve Keating