Rory McIlroy was cruising along on Friday at Liberty National, having gone two under par on his first 13 holes to pull within a few shots of the leaders. But his solid round was spoiled at the signature par-3 14th hole, where the Northern Irishman found the front-right greenside bunker from the tee, only for things to get much worse from there.
After arriving in the bunker to play his second shot, McIlroy noticed what he thought was a stone leaning up against his ball. Prior to this year, that would have been tough luck for the four-time major champion, because he would have had to play the ball as it lies. But under the new Rules, specifically Rules 12.2a and 12.2b, McIlroy is allowed to touch or move loose impediments in a bunker, and he's even allowed to touch the sand with his hand or his club, so long as it's not deliberate or he touches the sand directly in front of or behind the ball.
As McIlroy went to lift and remove the stone, he quickly found out it was not a stone but a clump of sand, pulling his hand away and doing nothing to alter his lie or move his golf ball. Immediately, he called over PGA Tour rules official Dave Donnelly and was adamant that he wasn't deliberately touching the sand behind his ball.
"I didn't intentionally touch sand," McIlroy said to Donnelly, who discussed the situation with another rules official on his walkie talkie. Donnelly informed him that it was likely still going to be a penalty.
After some more discussion, Donnelly confirmed it was a two-stroke penalty for touching the sand behind his ball, which McIlroy believes he was not doing. The PGA Tour has posted video of the ruling in its entirety. Watch the full exchange below:
To McIlroy's credit, you can see how well he handled the ruling. Some other players might not have been as calm about the whole ordeal, but he was able to get up and down for double bogey, and then bounce back with a birdie on his next hole. McIlroy then finished with three straight pars to shoot a one-under 70, which puts him at seven under for the week, five back of leader Dustin Johnson.
UPDATE: In a somewhat surprising turn of events, given how absurd the rules can sometimes be, PGA Tour rules officials reversed Rory McIlroy's two-stroke penalty on the 14th hole. He now moves to nine under par for the week, putting him within three of the lead. Here's what McIlroy had to say afterward:
"So the outcome is there was no penalty; they reviewed it. I knew that rule had changed this year a little bit, in the bunkers or penalty areas or whatever they're calling it. I thought there was a rock sort of beside my ball, so I went to pick it up and I touched it and I realized it wasn't a rock. But I touched the sand, right? So I was like, I don't really know—it's such a gray area. The way the rule is written, I think it's 12.1, then refers to 8.2 or whatever, it says if there is no intent and you haven't improved your lie and you haven't improved your line of play, and I'm very comfortable, the reason I called someone over was that I didn't want anything on my conscience, either. I feel like I play the game with integrity, and I'm comfortable saying that I didn't improve anything.
"So they got the USGA involved, rang them, they sort of went back and forth a little bit, and it came down to that. In a way, it came down to me and they said, 'OK, are you comfortable telling us you didn't improve your lie?' For me, I am comfortable saying that."
The PGA Tour's VP of rules and competition, Slugger White, added this after Rory's round: "He said he was 100 percent sure that nothing happened to improve. [Touching the sand] didn't improve his line of play or his intended swing."