Rory McIlroy drop debate latest distraction in pro-golf era full of them

rory mcilroy taking drop. in first round of Players, and Jordan Spieth reacting to what he saw

After Rory McIlroy, right, took a drop on the 7th hole Thursday, Jordan Spieth, left, weighed in.


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — This weekend here, at the corporate and sporting home of the PGA Tour, is supposed to be about the golf. It should be about Wyndham Clark, your 2023 U.S. Open champion, trying to join the Jerry Pate-Martin Kaymer-Webb Simpson-Tiger Woods club, the four guys who have won U.S. Opens and the PV Beach Classic, aka The Players, here at the Stadium Course. But all of golf — men’s elite professional golf, with its outsized influence on the game — is distracted now. These are the times that try golf fans’ souls.

Wanted: New Golf Heroes.

In the meantime, we’re adrift. Jordan Spieth, on Friday night, after two days of mediocre golf and a missed cut, made a quick stop to take questions from a small group of reporters. Five of them were about two drops his playing partner, Rory McIlroy, made on Thursday, the other two were about a semi-mandatory Monday meeting about a possible deal between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf. Spieth is on the PGA Tour board. McIlroy used to be. The guy behind the LIV Golf funding, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, is the most powerful person in golf right now and for only one reason: Everybody wants a piece of the pile of money on which he sits.

Greed is driving golf as it drives most everything these days, the finer things in life, and in golf, be damned. 

Wyndham Clark is in the headlines for the second time in two weeks. This week, for his exemplary play at Sawgrass. And last week, for the manner in which he addressed a ball at Bay Hill. Last hole, third round, big-money signature event. Clark, a study in fitness, was standing over his ball, deep in some of the nastiest rough this side of a U.S. Open at Oakmont. He had only one shot, to muscle it out. It was a lie no golfer wants to see.

As he prepared to play, he mashed his clubhead in the rough, right up against the ball. The more he did it, the worse his lie became, his ball sinking deeper into the rough. The rulebook allows a golfer to “lightly” ground the club as address. No penalty was called on Clark, so in every technical sense he was in the clear. But was he violating the spirit of golf’s most fundamental rule, play the ball as it lies? You can pass your own judgment. Armchair commentators on social media certainly did. After the round, Clark said of the episode at 18: “I actually had no idea that that even happened. They told me in the scoring tent. Showed me the video. I wasn’t trying to do anything like cheating or anything like that or improve my lie.” These sentences alone are a distraction.

Various familiar names will chase Clark this weekend, including Matthew Fitzpatrick, Scottie Scheffler, Brian Harman, Hideki Matsuyama and Jason Day, to cite a fivesome of major winners, plus 60 or so other players. You get $4.5 million for winning and last place pays $53,750. Bring on the golf. Right? But all these damn distractions, robbing this beautiful game of its civil dogfight greatness.

When you get right down to it, the players, here and everywhere, are obligated to do only one thing: play by the rules. The vast sums they play for should give them more incentive to do the right thing. Nobody’s starving out here. Have you seen player dining? To keep the whole thing going, you have to put the game ahead of yourself. And that attitude will come back to serve you well.

Rory McIlroy is a smart, caring person, often a voice of reason. Let’s not rehash all the details on his semi-heated, intra-group where-did-it-cross drop conversation on the 7th hole on Thursday. (The group was Rory McIlroy, Viktor Hovland and Jordan Spieth, and the conversation included caddies, too.) A player, absolutely, should stand up for what he believes happened, as McIlroy did. But let’s get this situation and every last one like it down to its essence: If you can’t say with virtual certainty what happened, bend over backward to be to be fair to the rest of the field. And the rest of the field will do the same for you.

One day after Rory McIlroy’s Players rules dustup? Things get wild again
By: Nick Piastowski

That’s the spirit of the game. Long-term karma (a phenomenon in which McIlroy believes; he said so after his first round) will reward you, and you might make some more PIP money, too. Not that such things motivated Bob Jones, Charlie Sifford, Mickey Wright, Jack Nicklaus and anybody else you might call a golfing hero with genuine pride.

Golf is all yin and yang. Aim left and the ball goes right. The tap-in putt and the monster drive count equally. Professional golf at its northernmost reaches has powerful and conflicting forces working in tandem. It’s a jungle out there and you’re all alone. But all the while, you’re a member of the community of golfers. And not just your fellow touring pros — all golfers, everywhere.

You should want to be held in esteem. How can that not be a goal? Tom Watson was not a warm and fuzzy person in his sporting prime. At all. But people respected his scorecard and by extension him. You can take that to your grave, which is nice.

Spieth and McIlroy, two of the golf’s most popular players, were openly fussing with each other on Thursday. Did it go beyond where did it cross? Let’s go to the subtext!

But, of course, you can’t, because subtext has no definitive language. In many instances, it’s hard to know why we say the things we say, do the things we do, think the things we think. The mystery of life, Bob Dylan lyrics, Jerry Lewis’s popularity in Paris.

But Spieth and McIlroy are all wrapped up in golf’s politics and commerce, in the ethics and payday of the PGA Tour-LIV Golf civil war. They can’t not be distracted. It’s impossible.

Subtext has been around forever, and heated rules situations have been, too. In 1995, at the World Series of Golf, a PGA Tour event at the Firestone Country Club, Greg Norman refused to sign Mark McCumber’s first-round score. Norman claimed that McCumber removed a small piece of live turf from a putting green.

At the time, McCumber, a prominent player and well-known to golf’s leaders in Ponte Vedra Beach, was one of the voices rejecting Norman’s idea to launch a world golf tour. Did that set off Norman? McCumber thought so. Norman rejected that idea. It was a mess, with no clear resolution. A Tour official signed McCumber’s card. Norman won the tournament. The entire purse was $2 million.

Rules disputes are as old as the game. Fitzgerald had one in The Great Gatsby. The character of one character, Jordan Baker, is defined by it. 

But the past decade has had more than its share of rough patches. In 2013, at the BMW Championship in Chicago, Tiger Woods was trying (legally) to remove a piece of wood debris leaning on his ball. His ball moved. When he didn’t call the penalty on himself, a rules official, Slugger White, imposed the two-shot penalty on him. One for moving it, one for not putting it back. Woods’s handling of the situation was regrettable. He put himself ahead of the game. He had other rules problems that year. It was a desperate time in his life, as he was trying to put that fire hydrant (etc.) behind him.

And since then:

How Jordan Spieth viewed Rory McIlroy’s ‘really tricky’ drops
By: Jack Hirsh

Patrick Reed in the Bahamas in 2019, when he improved his lie — regrettable. Ditto for Patrick Reed at Torrey Pines in 2021, when he claimed a ball that bounced had become embedded.

Brooks Koepka at 15 in the first round of last year’s Masters: to me, it is obvious that his caddie was giving club information (mouthing “Five. Five!”) to another caddie in the group. Koepka didn’t benefit, but a rule of golf is a rule of golf. Why not just come in, review the tape and take the penalty (for sharing information), in the interest of the game and your own reputation? Do the right thing.

And then last week, at Bay Hill, with Clark, addressing his ball as he did.

Now Wyndham Clark is leading this tournament, this most important event, aside the four majors, of the PGA Tour season. Imagine how the golf world would have responded had he come in at Bay Hill and said, “I watched the tape. That was way too much. Gimme the penalty.” Imagine how fans would feel about him this weekend?

Woods could have made golf better, that day in Chicago. Reed, in various situations, the same. Koepka and Clark, too. They had a chance to make golf better. 

As for McIlroy and Spieth, did you see their cursory handshake at the end of play on Friday? Man, it was cold and quick. Spieth had missed the cut, so that had to be part of it. But did their Thursday discussion linger? Possibly. Is the prospect of a new model for men’s professional golf bringing these two fine players and people more agony than joy? Likely. Is there more going on than we could know and even they could know? Definitely. 

Big-time golf will be played on TV this weekend. The players themselves have an obligation to make us — the community of golfers — care. They should know what we all know: Golf turns on the littlest things. 

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at

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