PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods has faced more scrutiny that any other golfer from his generation. Maybe ever.
Just not this variety.
Woods must long for the days when the golf world obsessed over his swing changes (all four of them) and questioned his coaches (all three of them). He was criticized for not playing enough tournaments and not giving the tournaments he did play enough notice that he was coming.
Some complained he practiced so early in the morning that paying customers didn't get a chance to see him. Others complained he didn't sign enough autographs. Most of it was petty.
But this is different.
Now it's his integrity on the golf course that's being questioned.
Woods won The Players Championship on Sunday for his fourth victory this year. Making it even more memorable, Woods ended his public spat with Sergio Garcia by posing with the crystal trophy. They were tied with two holes to play, and Garcia hit three shots in the water.
That all seems like B-material compared with the buzz over the drop Woods took on the 14th hole of the final round.
He hit what he called a "pop-up hook" with a 3-wood from the tee, and the ball landed in the water left of the fairway. Consulting with Casey Wittenberg, he dropped it some 255 yards short of the green. Woods then hit a remarkable shot short of the green, pitched on and missed a 6-foot putt to take double bogey.
The Internet has been alive with video showing the ball's flight on the 14th, along with analysis dissecting what was and was not said by a TV analyst, and seemingly endless theories how the ball could possibly have crossed land where Woods took his drop.
The chatter won't stop, even though there is nowhere to go with it. Consider this statement put out by Mark Russell, the tour's vice president of competition: "Without definitive evidence, the point where Woods' ball last crossed the lateral water hazard is determined through best judgment by Woods and his fellow competitor," the statement said.
Woods conferred with Wittenberg, his playing partner.
"I saw it perfectly off the tee," Wittenberg said. "I told him exactly where I thought it crossed, and we all agreed. So he's definitely great on that."
And if video suggests otherwise?
Decision 26-1/17 says a penalty would not be appropriate because it comes down to an honest judgment.
Of course, this might not be that big of an issue except that Woods in his most recent tournament — the Masters — was guilty of taking an illegal drop on the 15th hole at Augusta National. He eventually was docked two shots, but spared disqualification by the Masters because officials said they erred in not talking to Woods about the drop before he signed his scorecard. The rules back up that decision, though this one (Rule 33-7) is subject to interpretation. It could have gone either way.
That debate rages on. Should he have withdrawn for his own benefit? Did the Masters bail him out? Meanwhile, Adam Scott has a green jacket at his place in The Bahamas and he apparently wears it every morning. Good for him.
Back to Sawgrass, where there was that Saturday incident with Garcia which was one case where Woods shared some responsibility.
The scene on the par-5 second hole was chaotic. Woods was so deep in the trees that it appeared it was his turn to hit. Garcia stood over his second shot for the longest time. There was a burst of cheers when Woods pulled out his 5-wood. Garcia finished his swing and looked over at the crowd, clearly frustrated.
Woods and Garcia don't like each other and haven't for the better part of 13 years. That much can be established.
Garcia suggested in a TV interview during the storm delay that Woods pulled the club at just the right time to fire up the crowd and disrupt his swing. Woods said in a TV interview that evening, "The marshals, they told me he already hit, so I pulled a club and was getting ready to play my shot."
Sports Illustrated talked to the chief marshal for that section of the course, John North, who said he stood over the ball to keep the gallery away from it and was 5 feet away when Woods played his shot.
"Nothing was said to us and we certainly said nothing to him," North said. "I was disappointed to hear him make those remarks. We're there to help the players and enhance the experience of the fans. He was saying what was good for him. It lacked character."
To suggest Woods purposely tried to distract Garcia is a stretch. It was hard to even see Garcia from where he was in the trees. But it was silly to hang this on "the marshals," unless he mistook any of the hundreds of people around him as marshals.
Woods' mistake was not doing what just about every other tour player would have done — look over to the other player to determine who was away. This would require eye contact, and there wasn't much of that in the third round.
Garcia's mistake was not doing what just about every other tour player would have done — say something to Woods, instead of calling him out on TV. The ball was back in Woods' court at this point. Instead of telling Garcia he didn't see him (if he didn't) or apologizing (if he did) he threw out the line about the marshals and couldn't resist taking a shot.
"Not real surprising that he's complaining about something," Woods said of Garcia.
Both of them should have been put in time-out.
"It's very unusual for an individual spat to get out," Padraig Harrington said. "There's no winners when that gets out there. I think when players have an issue, they find things. So if you don't like somebody, you read things in, and you make more of a situation than there is."
Lost in this mess is that Woods is playing golf at a very high level. He is four short of Sam Snead's record for career wins. He is a month away from the next major, where he will be the heavy favorite again. Woods is motoring right along.
But it sure is a bumpy ride at the moment.