Horror finish compounded by two-stroke penalty for McIlroy

Mark McGowan
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Rory McIlroy (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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When he rolled in a short birdie putt at Spyglass Hill’s par-3 fifth – his 14th – Rory McIlroy moved to six-under and into a provisional two-stroke lead at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Little over an hour later, he left the scorers hut having signed for a one-under 71, his tumble down the leaderboard compounded by a two-stroke penalty for taking an incorrect drop on the seventh.

It hadn’t exactly been plain sailing for the world number two who usually feasts on the par-5s, but navigated his opening five holes – including two par-5s – in the regulation numbers. He got things moving with a birdie on the par-3 15th and then added another on the par-4 17th to move to -2 at the turn.

He finally got a circle on the scorecard for a par-5 when he chipped to tap-in range on the first, and then caught fire on the third, reeling off three birdies in a row, culminating in the aforementioned short birdie putt on five.

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And then it all went wrong.

Three putts from around 30 feet on the par-4 sixth, was followed by a wayward tee shot on the par-5 seventh, the ball coming to rest under a tree left of the fairway. After contemplating a hack-out-sideways attempt, he opted to take a penalty drop instead, eventually failing to get up-and-down from short of the green and recording what he though was going to be a bogey-six.

Two dropped shots in a row became three when he found the wrong tier on the par-4 eighth, racing his long birdie attempt off the front of the green and eventually holing a decent-length putt for bogey.

A neat up-and-down for par on the last limited the damage somewhat, but, bizarrely, the worst was yet to come, as he was informed that the drop he’d taken on seven was illegal and he was assessed an additional two-stroke penalty, turning his bogey-six into a triple-bogey eight and an eventual one-under opening effort.

It wasn’t until his post-round interview that viewers and leaderboard watchers were made aware of exactly why the six had turned into an eight, but it turns out that the world number two had made an honest mistake and been unfamiliar with the rules of golf.

“Yeah, so I took an unplayable on seven and I took it back online,” he said. “Then, unbeknownst to me, the rule changed in January 2023 where you used to be able to come back online, take a club length either side. That was changed in 2019 to be able to do that. I wasn’t aware that that rule was changed again in 2023, so I took a drop thinking of the 2019 rules when everything was sort of changed not knowing that the rule was changed again in 2023, so got a two-stroke penalty there.”

It was an extremely unfortunate way to finish a day where he’d played extremely well for most of the round, but he was still in the mood to take the positives from it.

“Yeah, played really well for the first 14 holes,” he said, “and then obviously had a bit of a bad finish there. But for the most of it I hit the ball pretty well. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. Had that run of holes on six, seven and eight, but I mean apart from that, I actually played very well.”

It’s been a positive start to the season, regardless, and there is a lot of golf yet to be played this week. And if his 10-stroke deficit at the 36-hole mark at the Dubai Desert Classic a fortnight ago has taught him anything, it’s that he’s still very much in the tournament, even if he’s feeling more than a little frustrated tonight.

“I feel like my game’s in really good shape,” he lamented. “I’m hitting it well, feel comfortable around the greens, on the greens. Yeah, game feels in good shape. It was just one of those — I just let it — I had a really score and then just sort of let it get away from me those last few holes.”

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