TIGER WOODS missed a glorious opportunity at the Masters ... and forfeited a prize even greater than the Green Jacket.
For a short time on Saturday morning, Woods had a chance to do the right thing and make a stand for the integrity of his sport.
With one act, the World No 1 could have separated himself from his seedy past and taken pride of place alongside Augusta National's iconic founder, Bobby Jones, in the game's pantheon.
All it needed was for Woods to accept there's more to golf than the letter of the law the tournament's Competitions Committee applied to let him stay on at the Masters and, as a matter of principle, withdraw.
Such noble thoughts may appear fanciful in view of the highly controversial marketing ploy by Tiger's principal sponsor Nike after three PGA Tour victories in five events propelled him back to the top of the world.
"Winning takes care of everything," they trumpeted, a line uttered by Tiger in his early career but widely considered inappropriate following cataclysmic events of recent years in his private life.
The event which sparked one of the biggest moral crises in the history of the Masters occurred on the 15th hole in last Friday's second round, when Woods took an illegal drop.
His approach shot to this par five had struck the flagstick and rebounded back into the pond in front of the green. By rule, Tiger had a few choices.
He could play his next shot from the drop zone, but didn't like the lie he'd get there.
He also was entitled to go back as far as he liked in line with the flag and the last point where his ball entered the hazard, which was to the left of the hole.
The third option was to drop his ball "as near as possible" to the point where he'd played the original shot. Plainly this should have been within inches of his initial divot mark.
Yet TV clearly showed Woods drop his ball (from above shoulder height, incidentally) three or four feet further back, causing one observant viewer to ring a tournament referee and report the infringement.
A committee spokesman revealed on Saturday morning that they reviewed a video of the incident and determined that Tiger had "played his third shot in conformance with Rule 26".
This process occurred before Woods had finished his round and, because they considered no action was necessary, the committee did not raise the matter with Tiger before he signed his card which included a bogey six at the hole.
They erred badly in their judgement of Tiger's actions on 15 and, in hindsight, should have sought the player's opinion on the matter before making a determination or allowing him to sign his card.
Their loose application of the rules in that event stood in stark contrast to the one-stroke penalty imposed (quite correctly) on 14-year-old Tianlang Guan for slow play during Friday's second round.
The issue became a crisis when Woods said in a post-round TV interview that he'd dropped his ball two yards back from the site of the original shot, so it would land short of the hole and not strike the flag once again.
By admitting he'd deliberately improved his lie in this way, Tiger publicly hanged himself ... and left the committee swinging as well.
He was invited to meet the committee on Saturday morning, when a two-stroke penalty was imposed, leaving Woods with a score of eight at the hole.
By rule, he should have been disqualified for signing for a wrong score but the committee, believing they had erred in their original handling of the situation, decided the ultimate penalty should be waived under Rule 33.
"Under the rules of golf, I was able to go out and compete and play," said Tiger. "Evidently, this is the Harrington rule, I guess. If it was done a year or two ago, whatever, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to play. But the rules have changed."
Ironically, the 'Harrington rule' was introduced by golf's world governing bodies, the R&A and USGA, in Masters week, 2011.
It was in response to the Dubliner's hugely controversial disqualification from that January's Abu Dhabi Championship. Harrington was reported by a TV viewer that evening for an infringement picked up by High Definition TV cameras but which was impossible for the player himself to see with his naked eye.
On that occasion, the ruling bodies wrote into golf law a clause insisting that an exception could not be granted under Rule 33 if a player acted in "ignorance of the rules" (which clearly applied in Tiger's case).
So the 'Harrington rule' does not apply in this instance. Instead, the committee felt duty-bound to spare Woods the ultimate sanction because of their own mishandling of the case. What an unseemly mess!
That still does not excuse the fact that Tiger broke Rule 26 and improved his lie, in breach of one of the most basic principles in golf. Ignorant of this, he didn't add two strokes to his card.
So he signed for the wrong score, in breach of another basic principle. Yet failing to recognise the moral imperative in this matter was his greatest error by far.