Augusta, Georgia: Tiger Woods fired a two-under par 70 in Saturday's third round of the Masters only hours after being hit with a two-stroke penalty, putting him in the hunt for his 15th career major crown.
Woods began a run of three birdies in four holes at the par-3 12th and made tense par putts on the last three holes to share seventh on three-under 213 after 54 holes at Augusta National, where he has won four green jackets.
After a bogey at the par-4 11th, Woods birdied three of the next four holes, then made a sand save at the 16th, a tricky par putt at 17 and a 10-footer for par at the 18th after a bad tee shot.
"That was a nice one to make," Woods said of his last putt. "The last three saves were key and kept me in the tournmament."
Woods was four strokes off the lead when he reached the clubhouse with the leaders still finishing their third rounds, but the 14-time major champion has never won a major when he was not leading after 54 holes.
World number one Woods began the day with an early morning meeting with the Augusta National competition committee, which imposed the penalty on him for an improper drop at the par-5 15th hole in Friday's second round.
"I made a mistake. Under the rules of golf, I made an improper drop and I got a penalty," Woods said. "I'm abiding by the rules."
The committee had checked the drop and ruled it proper on Friday after a television viewer inquiry, but comments by Woods in a post-round television interview opened the door to reconsider the ruling.
After hitting the flagstick with his third shot at 15 on Friday and seeing his ball roll into a water hazard, Woods had said he dropped the ball two yards back from the original shot to avoid a similar risk on the next shot.
When Augusta National competition committee chairman Fred Ridley saw those remarks, the group reversed itself and imposed the penalty, but it would have been within its rights to disqualify Woods for signing an incorrect scorecard.
"Take the fact that it was Tiger out of the equation and it is a fair ruling," tweeted Graeme McDowell, who missed the cut. "Since it is him the debate begins about TV ratings etc etc."
Ridley said Woods was treated like any other golfer.
"I thought (on Friday) Tiger had done his best to comply," Ridley said. "Other people may disagree with that. It was my decision.
"It would have been grossly unfair to Tiger to have disqualified him. If this had been John Smith from wherever he would have gotten the same ruling because it's the right ruling under the circumstances."
Instead, a rule change approved in 2011 governing such situations allowed for a two-stroke penalty rather than disqualification for a player who unknowingly makes a violation, which Ridley ruled Woods had done.
"It was certainly a distraction early with the routine but it's like anything, it happens and you move on," Woods said. "I was ready to play come game time."
The ruling sparked furious comments from former players who were accustomed to players withdrawing themselves if they found they had made a violation, none moreso than three-time Masters winner Nick Faldo of England.
"He should really sit down and think about this and the mark this will leave on his career, his legacy, everything," Faldo said on The Golf Channel.
"It's just dreadful. Tiger is judge and jury on this. There is absolutely no intention to drop as close to the divot. That's a breach of the rules."
Woods, a 14-time major champion chasing the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open and has not won the Masters since capturing his fourth green jacket in 2005.
The spectre raised of Woods winning on Sunday and having a tainted victory as he tries to catch or pass Nicklaus was raised by commentators.
"This is a flagrant, obvious violation," retired player Brandel Chamblee said. "If Tiger has read the rule it is incumbent on him to say he is in violation and disqualify himself. Anything else is unacceptable."
Faldo, however, backed off his comments in Masters TV coverage, saying, "We're in a new era under new rules. Even if they bring some controversy, we're playing under new rules. Some of the old pros like myself, we have to accept that now."
Ridley noted that the US PGA and European tours and the US and Royal and Ancient Golf Associations were notified of the decision and supported it.
"I'm pleased the governing bodies and the tours are behind our decision because I think it's a good decision," Ridley said. "I can't really control what the perception might or might not be."