‘The one thing I’ll rue’: Did this simple oversight cost Rory McIlroy?

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy on Sunday after his tee shot on the par-3 14th hole at Bay Hill.

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Rory McIlroy, as he walked off the green on Bay Hill’s par-3 14th, stared back toward the tee. To the left of it was a big electronic leaderboard. He said he also checked it out as he walked to the 14th green. 

But never when McIlroy was on the tee did he look. And that, he admitted, was a mistake. 

“The one thing I’ll rue,” he said afterward. 

Kurt Kitayama of the United States waves after making birdie on the seventh green during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard at Arnold Palmer Bay Hill Golf Course on March 05, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.
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Had McIlroy at least peeked at the leaderboard, he would have likely seen his name at the very top during Sunday’s final round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. And he said he would have played the hole more conservatively to protect his then-one-shot-lead. But he didn’t. And McIlroy tried to hammer an 8-iron into the 190-yard hole, slightly slipped on his downswing and hooked his ball into a left greenside bunker. 

He bogeyed. He bogeyed 15. He finished one shot back of winner Kurt Kitayama

Of course, one shot does not make a tournament; McIlroy hit 279 other ones over the course of four days. But he believed his oversight was costly, especially considering its simplicity. Heading into 14, he had birdied four of his last five holes, and when Jordan Spieth missed a 3-footer on 15 and Tyrrell Hatton three-putted from 14 feet on 12, McIlroy was in the lead all by his lonesome. 

“Disappointment,” he told Damon Hack on NBC afterward. “Obviously I feel like I gave myself a great chance after the birdie on 13, and then to play the final five holes in one-over par is not, with this jam-packed leaderboard, is not really going to get it done. 

“I think I’ll rue the tee shot on 14, especially. I didn’t know where I was in the tournament. I birdied 13 and thought maybe I was one or two behind because Jordan was making a run, but as I was walking up to the green on 14, I looked back and I saw I was one ahead. And if I had known that, I probably would have hit a different shot into 14, instead of trying to hit a perfect golf shot over that bunker. But anyways, it was a battle all day.”

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Sunday was. McIlroy’s birdie run was impressive. On both the par-4 9th and par-4 10th, he hit second shots to 7 feet. On the par-5 12th, he was home in two and two-putted. On the par-4 13th, he rolled in a 21-footer. He had been a whopping six shots out of the lead when he started the run, and now was one up with five to play. 

Then the error. On the tee on 14, McIlroy’s right foot slid inches backward on his downswing, and he pulled the shot, the ball ending up toward the front of the closest left greenside bunker. Was he possibly adding something extra? The thought had been to go toward the back pin, though had he known he was leading, he likely would have played out to the center of the green. He bogeyed, and he bogeyed 15 after he hooked his tee shot off a tree and darted his second shot, from thick rough, only 125 yards. 

There was late hope. He birdied 16 to pull into a share of the lead at eight-under, and he had a 10-footer for birdie on 18, but only Kitayama reached nine-under. And McIlroy started his look back.

There were positives. He had opened with a 73 and recovered. For the week, he was solid in the Strokes Gained metrics — 12th in Off the Tee (3.553); fifth in Tee to Green (9.709); 20th in Approach the Green (2.762); eighth in Around the Green (3.393) — though just 40 in Putting (0.713) The second is his second top five finish of his year, following a win in January at the Dubai Desert Classic.

“It was a good week,” McIlroy said. “I saw some positive signs. Game’s rounding into form for the bulk of the season. So I’m, even though I didn’t get the win, I’m still pretty happy with how everything went this week.

Still, he wondered. 

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Nick Piastowski

Nick Piastowski

Golf.com Editor

Nick Piastowski is a Senior Editor at Golf.com 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 nick.piastowski@golf.com.