Though Obvious, Overturning Rory McIlroy’s Penalty Is Progress for Golf

Rory McIlroy was given a two-stroke penalty for touching the sand, despite no intentions of trying to improve his lie. Overturning the call was simple, but shows remarkable progress for rules disputes in golf.
By Daniel Rapaport ,

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — We spend so much time on the internet complaining about everything that’s wrong. Criticizing referees, mocking leagues, that sort of thing. It’s only fair, then, to commend the powers that be when they get something right.

Friday, the PGA Tour and golf as a whole got something right.

In case you didn’t spend your summer Friday afternoon glued to the second round of the Northern Trust (the first event of the three-tournament FedEx Cup playoffs), here’s what happened: Rory McIlroy was in a bunker right of the par-3 14th green at Liberty National when he tried to remove a stone from a bunker. This is legal. The problem was, it wasn’t a stone. It was one of those clumps of sand that looks exactly like a stone but, in fact, is not a stone. (Your geology teacher might disagree with that distinction. “I was going to argue at the very end…isn’t it all just rocks?” McIlroy joked after the round). Thus, he touched the sand in a bunker before hitting his shot, which is illegal.

Despite the fact that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he didn’t improve his lie and that the ball didn’t move, he was given a two-stroke penalty that knocked him from eight under and just three back of the lead to six under and five back.

To his immense credit, McIlroy handled this like the class act that he is. No one else had seen what happened. He could have gotten away with it. Instead, he took it upon himself to call over a rules official and explained the situation.

“That’s the great thing about our game,” McIlroy said. “If you feel you’ve done something wrong, you call it on yourself and you make sure you haven’t done anything wrong.” With each passing day, McIlroy further cements himself as an all-time good guy, the kind of man you want your children to emulate.

After the decision, he put the penalty out of his mind and played his last four holes in two under. Once he finished his round by draining a 25-footer for par, he knew he had a solid chance to get the penalty changed because he knew that the rule had changed.

As part of golf’s “modernization” of the rules, which came into effect this year, intent is now relevant when it never was before. This was a long overdue change. Better late than never, as McIlroy would be first to tell you. Because now, under rule 12-2, a player is only penalized if he touched the sand intentionally, or if his actions improved his lie. McIlroy did nothing of the sort, so the PGA Tour brass immediately sprung to action. They called the USGA and decided to overturn the penalty, meaning he shot 68 and not 70, and that he’ll enter the weekend at nine under and three back of Dustin Johnson’s lead, rather than seven under and five back.

Sure, this wasn’t exactly complicated, and yes, it’s a bit odd to compliment common sense. But considering how badly rules disputes were handled in the past, this is remarkable progress.

Example 1A for bungling a rules situation—and the catalyst for many of these changes—came at the 2016 U.S. Open, where Johnson played the back nine without knowing whether he’d be penalized for unintentionally moving his ball on the green. (He eventually was, but won anyway).

“I thought back to Dustin and Oakmont. I’m like, ‘I don’t want that.’”

No one wants that. Not the USGA, not the Tour, not the players. Today, we didn’t get that. Hallelujah.

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