7 Masters Controversies Through The Years

Thankfully Masters controversies have been relatively few and far between, but here are seven incidents that made the news to varying degrees

Masters controversies
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Masters, just like any other tournament, is not immune from the occasional controversial incident.

Below, we list 7 Masters controversies that have happened through the years at Augusta National, featuring Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington and more...

1958 – Arnold Palmer – the great relief debate

Black and white image as Arnold Palmer hits a drive in 1958

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Playing the 12th in the final round with Ken Venturi in 1958, Palmer’s ball plugged beyond the green. Palmer felt he was entitled to relief under a Local Rule in effect that week; the Rules official on the scene, Arthur Lacey, disagreed.

After a brief argument, Palmer played his ball and made a double, before announcing he would play a second ball, then let the Rules committee decide. He made par with that ball, the committee agreed that the three should stand and Palmer went on to win by a shot.

1968 – Roberto de Vicenzo – the famous scorecard gaffe

Di Vicenzo (left) signed for the wrong score which left him out of a playoff (Getty Images)

The Masters’ most famous controversy, certainly until Tiger Woods’ 2013 incident, and yet in many ways, not a controversy at all but simply a high-profile application of one of golf’s harsher Rules.

Tommy Aaron absent-mindedly marked de Vicenzo down for a par on the 71st hole when he had actually made birdie, and the Argentine didn’t spot the error before signing his card. The Rules committee had no choice but to accept the score as signed for under the Rules, despite millions witnessing the birdie.

Many incorrectly believe it cost de Vicenzo the Masters. It didn’t – it cost him the chance of a playoff the following day with Bob Goalby, the ultimate beneficiary of the incident.

2004 – Ernie Els – seeking a third opinion

If you don’t get the answer you want initially, keep persevering until you do. That would seem to be the case following this incident with the Big Easy on the 11th in 2004.

Two Rules officials denied him a drop away from a pile of tree limbs deep in the woods miles left of the 11th fairway, so he took his case to the chairman of the tournament committee, Will Nicholson, who sanctioned a drop.

Els salvaged bogey and seemed on course for a playoff late on Sunday until Phil Mickelson’s late grandfather nudged his winning birdie putt in from on high.

2009 – Padraig Harrington – moving ball that sparked a change

When Padraig Harrington’s ball clearly moved as a result of a gust of wind on the 15th green in the second round in 2009, it was one of the final straws that would spark a Rule change in the 2012 revisions.

Harrington’s problem was that he had grounded his club, so although he had clearly not caused it to move, he was deemed to have done so under the Rules at the time. It was the final catalyst for a change to Rule 18-2b, under which Harrington would not have been penalised today in similar circumstances.

2009 – Rory McIlroy – just smoothing the sand?

Rory McIlroy hits a bunker shot

Rory came perilously close to disqualification for a breach of Rule 13-4 when he seemed to kick out in anger after failing to extricate himself first time from the bunker to the right of 18 in the second round.

McIlory, who had already signed his card before the incident came under investigation, claimed he was just smoothing the sand, perhaps a touch more vigorously than usual; others felt it looked a little more than that. In the end, after reviewing video footage and speaking to McIlroy, Masters officials exonerated the Northern Irishman and he was free to proceed in round three.

2013 – Guan Tianlang – the slow 14-year-old amateur

Golfers shake hands

If you’re going to pick on someone for slow play, why on earth pick on a 14-year-old Chinese amateur rather than one of golf’s millionaires? That’s what many thought when John Paramor took the 14-year-old Chinese sensation to one side to advise him he was being penalised one-stroke after making par on the 17th in round two.

Some argued it was just the letter of the law being applied as he had already been warned earlier in the round; others argued that making an example of a 14-year-old amateur when many other guilty parties go unpunished every week was a poor show. Either way, there was a collective sigh of relief when Guan went on to become the youngest player ever to make the cut in a Major despite the penalty - undoubtedly one of the best amateur performances at The Masters.

2013 – Tiger Woods – an illegal drop

Tiger Woods takes a drop

Probably nothing would have happened here if Tiger hadn’t said what he said. Having seen his third shot rebound unluckily off the flagstick into the water on the 15th in round two, he then proceeded to drop not as near to the original spot as possible, but a couple of yards further back to prevent a repeat episode.

It was an unsavoury episode, with the only good news that Tiger did not go on to win, as it would have been a victory forever under a cloud in many people’s eyes.

Jeremy Ellwood
Contributing Editor

Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly. He is an expert on the Rules of Golf having qualified through an R&A course to become a golf referee. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 91 of the Next 100, making him well-qualified when it comes to assessing and comparing our premier golf courses. He has now played 1,000 golf courses worldwide in 35 countries, from the humblest of nine-holers in the Scottish Highlands to the very grandest of international golf resorts. He reached the 1,000 mark on his 60th birthday in October 2023 on Vale do Lobo's Ocean course. Put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content.

Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf

Jeremy is currently playing...

Driver: Ping G425 LST 10.5˚ (draw setting), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 55 S shaft

3 wood: Ping G425 Max 15˚ (set to flat +1), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 65 S shaft

Hybrid: Ping G425 17˚, Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro Orange 80 S shaft

Irons 3-PW: Ping i525, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Wedges: Ping Glide 4.0 50˚ and 54˚, 12˚ bounce, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Putter: Ping Fetch 2021 model, 33in shaft (set flat 2)

Ball: Varies but mostly now TaylorMade Tour Response