There is a golfing god after all with Rory McIlroy found not to have breached the rules despite being initially slapped with a two-stroke penalty on day two of the Northern Trust in New Jersey.
McIlroy was penalised two shots at the par-3 14th hole in touching what he thought was a very small stone in a bunker that turned out to be a hard portion of sand.
At the time, PGA Tour official Dave Donnelly deemed McIlroy, under the Rules of Golf, to have ‘tested’ the sand before playing his bunker shot and thus a two-stroke penalty was slapped on the four-time Major winner with a double-bogey ‘5’ appearing on the PGA Tour scoring website.
McIlroy looked very despondent in ending his round with a one-under par 70 for a then share of 13th place at seven-under par and five shots adrift of former World No. 1 Dustin Johnson who signed for a 67 for a 12-under par total on the Liberty National course.
However in heading to the scorer’s hut, McIlroy was not about to hand in his scorecard until he got a second ruling on the incident at 14, and as it turned out, the PGA Tour’s ‘Slugger’ White was already on the case.
It was around 20-minutes after he ended his round that the penalty was removed, the online scorecard showing McIlroy had posted a ‘3’ at the 14th and thus his score was amended to a round of 68 and a now share of seventh place at nine-under par, only three adrift of ‘DJ’.
Ahead of the penalty being overturned, McIlroy could be heard explaining to the rules official at the scene what he had done, knowing it could be deemed illegal.
“I thought there was something behind my ball and it wasn’t a stone, but I had touched it,” he said. “I was not trying to improve my lie or ….”
The rules official asked McIlroy to point out what he’d touched and when asked if he had picked-up the object, McIlroy was adamant: “No, I did not pick it up”.
The rules official then can be heard indicating to McIlroy: “You’re not allowed to touch the sand but then there is nothing to do with regards to restoring the situation but let me double check. But then I think it is going to be a penalty as you touched something as it was a loose impediment.”
McIlroy was accepting of the ‘ruling’ and can be heard saying: “Okay, no worries.”
Donnelly then gets onto his walkie-talkie and with ‘Slugger’ White being heard saying: “He can’t touch the sand either in front or behind the ball.”
With McIlroy standing beside the official, Donnelly comments: “That is the danger of picking-up something that looks like a rock.”
McIlroy accepts the two-shot penalty like a true professional but that was by far not the end of the matter with it later revealed the USGA, based also in New Jersey, had been contacted and had decided that the penalty be immediately overturned soon after the end of McIlroy’s round.
McIlroy explained: “So the outcome is there was no penalty. They reviewed it. So I knew that rule had changed this year a little bit in the bunkers or the penalty areas or whatever they are calling it. I didn’t — so I thought there was a clump of — so I thought there was a rock behind like sort of beside my ball, and I went to pick it up. So I touched it and I realized it
wasn’t a rock, so I just went, oh, that’s not a rock, but I touched the sand, right.
“So I was like, I don’t really know — like it’s such a grey area. But the way the rule is written, it’s like 12.1 and then refers to 8.2 or whatever it is, but it says if there’s no intent and if you haven’t improved your lie, and you haven’t improved your line of play; and I’m very comfortable.
“Like the reason I called someone over is I don’t want anything on my conscience, either. I feel like I play the game with integrity and I’m comfortable saying that I didn’t improve anything. I thought it was a rock; it wasn’t. I moved my hand away, and then I was like, I don’t know if I’ve done anything wrong here.
“They got the USGA involved. Rang them. They sort of went back and forth a little bit, and then it came down to that — in a way, it came down to me and said, okay, are you comfortable telling us you didn’t improve your lie, and for me, I am comfortable saying that.”
The incident, coming after a 40-minute lightning delay when McIlroy had just split the 12th fairway with a 343-yard drive, clearly unsettled the current World No. 3.
“Any time that things happen because the rules official said, do you want to play and we can sort it out later — no, because any time that happens, I think back to Dustin and Oakmont,” said McIlroy.
“I’m like, I don’t want that. So either give me a penalty or don’t give me a penalty. At least I have a clear sort of mind in knowing what I need to do or what score I’m on. The rules official said — at that time, he said a two-shot penalty. I’m like, fine, just let me play. There was people on the tee box. I didn’t want to hold play up. I played the last few holes thinking that I was two shots worse than I was, but it ended up okay.”
McIlroy was quizzed if he thought the officials were, in fact, going to overturn the matter.
“You know, I said to Harry walking down 15, I want to look at the rule book whenever I get in. I’m not going to sign my card until I’m comfortable with the wording,” said McIlroy.
“But then as soon as I walked off 18, I was told that Slugger and the guys were reviewing it, anyway. So that gave me a little bit of hope I guess.
“No one else saw what happened and that’s the great thing about our game. If you feel like you’ve done something wrong, you call it on yourself and you make sure you haven’t done anything wrong.
“But yeah, I don’t want to play with that sort of uncertainty the last few holes.”
Meanwhile Shane Lowry is just six shots back after the Clara golfer added a 67 to his opening round of 69 to move to minus-six and into a tie for 20th.
Sadly Graeme McDowell could only add a 72 to his opening round of 71 to miss out on the weekend cut mark at one-over par.
Slugger White was then interviewed and here is his view of the matter:
SLUGGER WHITE: Realizing it wasn’t a stone, which he’s allowed to move, and he was fine with that.
Q. So therefore, he hasn’t tested the hazard? SLUGGER WHITE: Correct.
Q. He would be allowed to move if it was a stone? SLUGGER WHITE: It didn’t improve his line of play or his intended swing.
Q. So the clump of stand was still there when he went to play the shot? SLUGGER WHITE: Yes, indeed.
Q. So you just informed him when he was signing his scorecard? SLUGGER WHITE: We asked him to wait, and then we wanted to come in and talk to him about it.
Q. Did you all get to review the footage? SLUGGER WHITE: We saw, but it’s really not — it’s very inconclusive to be quite honest. I don’t think you can really tell anything there.
Q. But when Rory explained that to you, that it had not broken down, that was the point? SLUGGER WHITE: He said he was 100 percent sure that nothing happened to improve.
Full Scoring HERE