Why Rory McIlroy invoked ‘karma’ and ‘conscience’ after 2 awkward drops

Rory McIlroy (right) and Jordan Spieth (left) walk off the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass

Rory McIlroy's awkward exchanges following a pair of drops on Thursday earned the attention of the golf world.

Getty Images/Keyur Khamar

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Perhaps Rory McIlroy wasn’t intending to speak in entendre on Thursday afternoon at the Players Championship. But it is hard to think of a better way to describe the utter oddity of the previous five hours of his life than his exchange with a reporter at TPC Sawgrass just after his round completed:

Q: Two balls in the water and you still shoot 65, couldn’t have asked for much more, I would think?

A: It would be nice to shoot 62 and not have two in the water, I guess.

It would have been nice indeed, because keeping his tee shots out of the water on holes 18 and 7 could have allowed McIlroy to tie the course record set by Tom Hoge last spring, putting him three shots clear of the field after the morning wave. Rory was brilliant on Thursday, and removing his only two real mistakes of the morning would have made him extra brilliant.

It would have been nice because a first-round 62 would have given McIlroy a legitimately dominant, blemish-free round of golf on his resume, something we have not seen from him in quite some time. Rory told reporters earlier this week he’s been battling something with his irons and wedges, and he might have found the answer on Thursday. During his opening round his game looked like an Olympian coasting through a charity 5k — an all-out offensive that looked equal parts effortless and untapped.

But a 62 would have also been nice because keeping those two shots clear of the water would have allowed McIlroy to avoid a pair of lengthy, awkward rules exchanges with playing partners Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland — exchanges that seemed to leave a sour taste in the mouths of all three post-round.

The truth is that nothing about McIlroy’s 18th or 7th holes (which he played in that order, because he teed off on No. 10) rose to the level of questionable. In both cases, Rory struck his drive into a water hazard, then consulted his caddie, a rules official and his playing partners to determine the proper location for a subsequent drop. And in both cases, Rory and his playing partners ultimately felt okay proceeding freely.

But in both cases the drops were the subject of extended conversations between McIlroy and his playing partners litigating their nature, his interpretation of the situation and how that interpretation lined up with that of his competitors. One of those conversations, an eight-minute and eighteen-second drawn-out back-and-forth, was drooling with so much rules minutiae that the PGA Tour posted the entire exchange on social media.

The specifics of these two drops did not explicitly affect McIlroy’s final score on Thursday, a 7-under 65 that left him tied for the lead. In both cases, he accepted a penalty for a ball played into a water hazard, and in both cases he made bogey or worse (including a double on the 7th.) But for the sake of clarity we’ll explain them briefly here:

  • Situation No. 1: On the 18th hole, McIlroy played a high draw over the fairway that quickly veered out of play and splashed in the water. Invoking rule 17.1 (d), he took a drop on a line with the estimated position the ball crossed into the water, and played his ball from the fairway to the green. He later made bogey.
  • Issue No. 1: As McIlroy attempted to figure out where his ball crossed into the water, Spieth and Hovland walked over to be sure that McIlroy was taking a line that aligned with their perception of his ball flight. The group eventually settled on a position in the fairway some 150 yards back of where Rory’s ball had entered the water — a location barely on the collar of the fairway.
  • Situation No. 2: On the 7th hole, McIlroy played another high draw over the fairway that leaked over toward a lake on the left side. His ball bounced on dry land but then kicked into the water. Invoking rule 19.2, he took a drop lateral to the hazard, claiming his ball had bounced in play before crossing the red stakes.
  • Issue No. 2: Spieth and Hovland appeared less sure than McIlroy that his ball had bounced on the right side of the red stakes before popping into the water. During the exchange, Spieth said he heard from some members of the TV crew who said McIlroy’s ball had bounced on the wrong side of the stakes. McIlroy and caddie Harry Diamond, however, were adamant from the tee box that their ball had bounced on the right side of the stakes. After a lengthy conversation, the group settled on letting McIlroy drop from a sidehill lie lateral to where his ball had entered the water. He later made double bogey.

We should be clear that nobody has accused McIlroy of wrongdoing in either situation, including Spieth and Hovland, who declined to talk to media post-round. Rory himself has been one of the most salient golfers on Tour regarding the rules over more than a decade in competition — famously once worsening a lie after feeling he’d gotten a ruling too favorable. Considering this, his assertion that he was “adamant” he acted within the rules lands as pretty telling.

But the interesting part about McIlroy’s rules saga was not that it may or may not have been kosher — to that end this writer can only guess. The interesting part was what it revealed about him even after a round that saw him largely dispose of one of the best fields in golf.

“I feel like I’m one of the most conscientious golfers out here,” he said when asked plainly about the implications of cheating. “If I feel like I’ve done something wrong, it’ll play on my conscience for the rest of the tournament…

“I’m a big believer in karma,” he continued. “If you do something wrong, I feel like it’s going to come around and bite you at some point. I obviously don’t try to do anything wrong out there, and play by the rules and do the right thing. I feel like I did that [with] those two drops.”

Rory McIlroy defends himself after ‘blind spot’ ruling
By: Sean Zak

Golfers are a superstitious bunch, as anyone who’s ever lived between their ears for 18 holes can attest, and there is something telling about the fact that McIlroy’s primary defense against cheating is, well, superstition. In a largely self-governed sport, the conscience can be a powerful observer — metering our sense of right and wrong, good and bad.

The hard part about the conscience, though, is that it is not applied in the same unambiguous legalese that joins the rules of golf. The same moment looks different viewed through two sets of eyes — as McIlroy’s awkward moments on Thursday showed can be true even for three of golf’s most agreeable figures.

All of this raises a bigger question, one that cuts to the core of golf’s obsession with the rules: is the important part to play by the rules, or to intend to play by the rules? And if the latter is true, were Thursday’s unsure moments a sign of golf’s inherent weakness … or one of its greatest strengths?

That is a difficult question, so for now we’ll leave you with a few simple truths: Rory McIlroy shot 65 on Thursday at the Players after taking two unusual drops. He and his playing partners exhausted considerable effort to figure out the most equitable possible application of the rules throughout their round. After McIlroy’s round ended, he spoke gamely about matters of karma and self-governance for a long while with a group of people with whom he was not obligated.

It’s easy to do all that while shooting 65, sure. But it sure would’ve been easier with a 62.

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