April 10, 2009

Lesson Learned

Rory McIlroy found himself embroiled in a rules controversy on Friday, and somehow lived to tell about it

Rory McIlroy survived a hiccup in his first Masters when he avoided disqualification.

Rory McIlroy survived a hiccup in his first Masters when he avoided disqualification.

Late Saturday morning, from the meteor crater of a bunker at the right front of Augusta National Golf Club's second green, young Rory McIlroy created a shot that came to rest six inches from the flagstick. It was sensational, but it was not the important part of the moment. More important was what he did with his feet. He did nothing. He simply walked out of the bunker.

This mattered because golf's rules are odd, arcane, inscrutable, and really, really weird.

One commandment is, thou shalt not kick the sand.

McIlroy did that foul deed the day before at the 18th hole. He had made the cut, on the number at one over par, and with a sensational weekend, entirely possible, might win this Masters --except there was a chance he might not get to tee it up again.

By touching the sand, he touched off a controversy that lasted late into Friday night. Most media had left the course uncertain of McIlroy's future. Not his long-term future, which is golden, for he is this century's prodigy, only 19 years old and already stalking Tiger. But his immediate future was in question because the lords of Augusta were closeted and thinking deep thoughts. "Doesn't take this long," someone muttered, "to elect a pope."

He faced disqualification if found guilty of doing what everyone had seen him do. He had hit a shot that failed to move his ball out of the bunker. In a fit of pique, he then kicked the sand. Uh-oh. You can't touch the stuff while the ball is in the bunker. That's a two-shot penalty. Because McIlroy did not add those penalty shots to his scorecard, he would have been DQ'd for signing an incorrect card. In short, his first Masters would be over.

Weird, yes, that any of this is a crime. They could let you and me sift the sand through our fingers for an hour and we'd still butcher the nervous-making shot. But at the highest levels of game, kicking the sand can give a player information about the consistency of the stuff. Where precision is a given, information can be the winning ticket in the immortality lottery.

In most cases like McIlroy's, the judges are of the hanging variety. You pay with two shots, no explanations accepted. But the Masters competition committee asked McIlroy to come in and tell his story. The young man first declined. Then the committee chairman, Fred Ridley, called again and "said to me that 'It would be in your best interests to come up and see the tape,'" McIlroy said.

Unusual once, extraordinary the second time -- Augusta seemed to be begging McIlroy not to DQ himself.

"And we reviewed the tape for about five or 10 minutes," McIlroy said, "and I said to them, 'Look, I hit my shot and it's a natural instinct for me after I hit a bunker shot to smooth out my footprints. If you look at any bunker shot I play, I do that.'"

He said he knew that the crime was in kicking the sand, testing its condition. He defined kicking as "taking your foot out of the sand and putting it back into it, you know. And that's not what I did. I did a smoothing of the sand ... I might have done it a little vicious, a little vigorously, but that was my intent (to smooth the sand). It wasn't my intent to test the sand ...."

Whatever. Augusta National bought it. Ridley's committee reviewed the CBS tape of the incident. The chairman then issued a statement: "Based on the tape and Mr. McIlroy's statement of what had taken place after he played the shot, it was determined that no violation of the Rules had occurred."

I am of two minds here. Good for Augusta. It acted with the common sense often missing in golf rulings. Yet I think McIlroy deserved to be penalized. The distinction he drew between "kicking" and "smoothing ... vigorously" is a line drawn so finely as to be invisible. Maybe he didn't intend to test the sand. But test the sand he did. He finally escaped the bunker only to three-putt for a triple-bogey seven, so he surely didn't profit by any testing. Still, a golfer's failure to profit by breaking the rules is no reason for authority to forgive his transgression.

Wait a minute here. It turns out that I am of three minds. I was very happy to see Rory McIlroy on the golf course Saturday. What a gorgeous swing the kid has, practically liquid in its movements, producing a gathering of clubhead speed that must reach 125 miles per hour and yet comes to a full stop on the follow-through, posed there in appreciation of the shot in flight.

Seven times this day he made pars by scrambling, his touch precise. He was aggressive, thrillingly so, even trying a 250-yard 5-wood shot into the wind at the 15th, reaching only the far side of the pond and trickling back into the water. Without his best stuff on this day, he kept it under par, at 71, and comes to Sunday's round at even par for the tournament. He said he goal now is a finish in the top 16 that would earn an invitation to next year's Masters.

One thing more. This is about that bunker shot at the second hole today, the one where he did not smooth his footprints as he said he always did. Was that a conscious decision, not to touch the sand again?

"Yeah," he said, smiling. "I'm not going to make that mistake again."