By far the most underreported sports story of this past weekend involved Tiger Woods missing the cut at the PGA Tour's Charlotte stop. But it wasn't the missing of the cut that deserved far great headlines than it got (Tiger failing on and off the course is not nearly the shocking story it used to be), but rather the fact that PGA Tour cheated on his behalf in a blatant attempt to prevent this result from happening.
This is not at all an exaggeration of what transpired, but it does require some explanation.
Needing to make at least one birdie with only a couple of holes left in his second round, Woods hit his second shot on a par five deep into a wooded area far left of his intended target. Since Tiger always has a huge gallery, there were many people in the vicinity of where the ball appeared to be destined to land. However, no ball was ever actually found.
This was odd not just because there were a lot of people around but also because there weren't any bushes or high grass in the area where the ball could have been difficult to find. The PGA Tour's head rules official, Mark Russell, came onto the scene and, as is customary in such situations, began to ask spectators what they saw.
Not one person said they ever saw the ball come to rest. Not one person ever said they saw someone pick the ball up and run away. A couple of people apparently said they saw it bounce and others intimated that a group of spectators could have run off with the stolen souvenir.
In the history of golf, 100 out of 100 times this set of circumstances occurs in a tournament, the ball is declared lost and the player endures a severe stroke and distance penalty (which, in this case, would have ended any chance Tiger Woods had of appearing on the weekend's television broadcast). The rule is tough but clear. For a ball to be deemed taken by a spectator (or "outside agency") there must be "virtually certitude" that this is what occurred. That strict standard was not close to met in this particular case.
Not only didn't Russell have nearly enough evidence that Tiger's ball was actually taken to meet the "virtual certitude" standard; the facts indicate he didn't even have a measly preponderance to rule in that direction. In fact, I would argue that it significantly more likely that the ball was lost in a tree than that someone stole it.
After all, despite dozens of people being in the area not one person ever saw it come to rest or someone steal it. And while obviously Russell could not have known this at the time, the ball has yet to show up on eBay and not one word of its theft has broken on Twitter or Facebook, which in this age is nearly impossible.
Quite simply, what happened here was that the head PGA Tour rules official simply made up a new rule because he was either afraid of upsetting Tiger Woods, hurting the tournament's television ratings, or both. This really wasn't even a close call. (Any doubt about this was elliminated when Russell did give Woods a free drop, but had no idea where to drop it. Inherent in "virtual certitude" is that you at least know exactly where the ball was when it was alledgedly picked up.)
Of course, since Woods still failed to make the cut and the vast majority of the golf media views the Tour and Tiger as their virtual bosses, there was almost no public outcry under the dubious premise that there was "no harm no foul" (as if attempted bank robbery is any less egregious than the successful variety).
A less ostrich-like analysis of this situation however reveals that this event was extremely significant, not just for golf, but for all of sport.
First of all, golf is supposed be a game where the rules govern everyone the same. This is not like basketball where it has long been accepted that star players get better treatment from the referees (and, not coincidentally, basketball is also the sport with the most legitimate charges of game fixing/staging).
The PGA Tour has now basically ruled that it is almost impossible for Tiger Woods to be penalized for a lost ball because, since he always has a large gallery, it can simply be presumed that someone picked the ball up and ran away. If even the tradition-based game of golf has placed itself on this slipperiest of slopes, then the rest of the sports world may well be far worse off than even the most pessimistic of us may already presume.
We now live in a celebrity obsessed and ratings-driven culture. Even news coverage is routinely dictated not by what it important or truthful, but simply but what is most likely to get the largest audience. No one even bothers to pretend there is anything wrong with that anymore and often, a story's popularity is actually the singular justification for its newsworthiness (its gone viral!).
Well, similarly, this Tiger Woods episode shows that this mentality is seeping quickly and deeply into places never before thought possible. Not just in sports, where the playing field is still supposed to be even and the outcomes based on merit, but in golf, which is supposed to be the last hold out against corrosive societal trends (interestingly, even the stodgy Augusta National Golf Club showed they are caving to this very same pressure this year when they granted a special exemption to a young Japanese star because of foreign television ratings and did not give one to three-time major winner Ernie Els).
With these precedents set, it is becoming far too easy to see the melting of the core of what made sports great to begin with. The distance between the PGA Tour cheating to help Tiger Woods and its tournament television ratings, and the NFL deciding that a Super Bowl with Tim Tebow quarterbacking a team from New York in the Super Bowl is just too much to resist, is not really all that far.
From there, you can see the world of pro wrestling a lot more clearly than you can see Russia from Alaska.