In recent years, rules infractions seem to have become almost as hazardous to golfers in Abu Dhabi as IEDs to troops in Afghanistan. Last year, Tiger Woods was penalized for taking improper relief from a ball embedded in sand. In 2011, Padraig Harrington was disqualified for signing an incorrect score card after it was determined through HDTV that his ball moved almost imperceptibly on the putting green. This weekend Abu Dhabi claimed another victim, with momentous consequences.
Rory McIlroy finished the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship today in a tie for second place with Phil Mickelson, one stroke behind winner Pablo Larrazabal. But for a 2-stroke penalty resulting from an improper drop Saturday, McIlroy would have taken home the trophy.
On the second hole on Saturday, McIlroy’s ball came to rest in a spectator walkway defined by white lines. Such areas are treated as ground under repair. McIlroy could have played the ball as it lay, but chose to take relief under Rule 25-1b, which required him to drop the ball within one club length of the “nearest point of relief.” The nearest point of relief is the closest point, not nearer the hole, which provides relief from the interference (in this case the walkway defined by white lines).
McIlroy dropped outside the walkway, played his shot, and proceeded to par the hole. Neither he nor his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, had any clue that he had committed an infraction. But when he completed his round, his playing partner’s caddie informed him that his foot was on the line delineating the walkway when he played his shot. (The caddie waited until after the round so as not to distract McIlroy, but in time to ensure that he did not sign an incorrect scorecard which would have resulted in disqualification.)
McIlroy and a rules official went back to the second hole to inspect the area, and McIlroy concluded that, based on the location of his divot, he could not have played the shot without standing on the line. A 2-shot penalty was assessed, raising McIlroy’s score from a 68 to a 70. “There are some stupid rules in golf in this is one of them,” a disturbed McIlroy told reporters.
The penalty may seem somewhat harsh given that McIlroy apparently gained no advantage from the improper drop. In fact, he explained that the drop had resulted in a bad lie, and he would have benefitted from re-dropping it. That is precisely what the rules require. Decision 20-2c/0.5 states that, if a player drops from ground under repair area and the ball rolls to a position where the player would have stand in the area to play the shot, the ball must be re-dropped.
This was not a situation where the player (or his caddie) could not reasonably have detected the violation, such as where the slight movement of a ball is detectable only by viewing HDTV. Obviously, another caddie spotted McIlroy’s foot on the line. So while McIlroy can complain about stupid rules, this incident was avoidable. He remarked to reporters that “he had better things to think about” than keeping up with the rules of golf. Stupid or not, the rules are the rules, and players of McIlroy’s stature should know them.
Jack Ross is the editor of Ross’s Rulings. He completed an intensive PGA/USGA rules workshop.