Rory McIlroy doesn’t fully know rule. Video then catches him breaking it

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy on Thursday on the 7th hole at Spyglass Hill.

Golf Channel

Rory McIlroy was going over his options on Spyglass Hill’s 7th, when video cameras captured the mistake. His caddie, Harry Diamond, had just walked up, and there it was, on the back of his bib, in black letters. 



Unfortunately for McIlroy — capital ‘eye’, lowercase ‘el’ — the cameras kept rolling. 

In a bizarre sequence on Thursday during the first round of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, McIlroy finished at three-under and was 11th — only to be docked two strokes after a conversation with a rules official in the scoring tent. A video review, he was told, had found another error on the 7th — one featuring a rule that he didn’t know had been updated last year. 

Notably, McIlroy had been playing well. Through 14 holes, he was six-under and leading. But he bogeyed the 6th, his 15th hole of the day after starting on the back nine. On 7, he hit left off the tee, and his ball finished underneath a pine tree.

From there, things unraveled, though you may have missed it initially. 

— McIlroy reviewed his play. He thought about a shot from under the tree. He decided against it. He had no clear shot. He thought about a lateral drop through an unplayable ball. He decided against it, too. He had no clear shot there, either. He took back-on-the-line relief, which, according to the rules, allowed him to drop a ball in a spot “based on a reference line going straight back from the hole through the spot of the original spot.” 

— McIlroy figured out his drop. If you were watching Golf Channel’s coverage, the camera behind him went out, though you could make out from a greenside camera that he took out his driver and lined up a spot that appeared to be right of the line.

— The original camera returned, and McIlroy dropped to the right of a tee in the ground, which appeared to mark the reference line. 

— He hit. And the mistake was fully made. 

McIlroy had run afoul of Rule 19.2b, which covers back-on-the-line relief. In short, his error came when he took the club-length relief to the right of the reference line and hit — which triggered the two-shot penalty through Rule 14.3b (4). Had he dropped on the reference line, he would have been OK. 

He also would have been OK prior to the start of 2023. But it was then, rules official Stephen Cox said in an interview with reporters, that the back-on-the-line rule was adjusted to its current reading. 

Cox said the error was spotted “through our video review group.” He then gave this explanation:

“The current rule, which was rewritten in January of 2023, requires the player to go back from where his ball was in line with the flag, this was certainly in his case, and then drop the ball on that line,” he said. “The ball then, once dropped, can then roll up to a club length in any direction before a re-drop is required. That is the current rule. 

“Unfortunately, Rory proceeded under the rules as they were pre-2023, which was you go back on the line and then you would measure one club length off the line in either direction as long as it was no nearer the hole and drop it within that club length. So, in other words, you could drop it off the line. 

“And all of us within the game, including the governing bodies, were very uncomfortable once the rule was written, which was back in 2019 and we subsequently put sort of a bit of a Band-Aid on that one to try to protect the player. So there was always intentions to rewrite it, which happened, and they were introduced in Jan 2023. 

“I think in Rory’s case, he was sort of operating in the old rules. As soon as I started talking to him about it, I think the penny dropped that he had proceeded under the old rules and he was totally accepting of the fact that he played from the wrong place and he got the two penalty strokes.” 

And his bogey six on the 7th turned into a triple-bogey eight. He finished with a one-under 71, instead of three-under 69. Entering Friday’s second round, he’s tied for 39th, instead of tied for 14th. 

“So I took an unplayable on 7 and I took it back online,” McIlroy said afterward. 

phil mickelson
Phil Mickelson nearly commits costly rules gaffe before official saves him
By: Sean Zak

“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.”  

Memorably, a similar sequence happened last year at the PGA Championship, when Phil Mickelson thought about dropping away from the reference line on a back-on-the-line drop, only to be corrected by rules officials. 

After some uncertainty, Mickelson thanked them. 

“He came and saved me a stroke, so I was very appreciative.”

Nick Piastowski

Nick Piastowski Editor

Nick Piastowski is a Senior Editor at and Golf Magazine. In his role, he is responsible for editing, writing and developing stories across the golf space. And when he’s not writing about ways to hit the golf ball farther and straighter, the Milwaukee native is probably playing the game, hitting the ball left, right and short, and drinking a cold beer to wash away his score. You can reach out to him about any of these topics — his stories, his game or his beers — at