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Players Championship: Rory McIlroy's rules controversies could've been avoided

March 14, 2024

David Cannon

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — It was five minutes that will last forever, five minutes in which the man who spent the better part of two years defending his tour had to defend himself. What was levied against Rory McIlroy by Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland were not technically accusations, but rather insinuations, although when it comes to professional golf and rules controversies, accusations and insinuations are often interchangeable because they carry the same powerful stigma. And the only thing more bizarre than watching three of the sport’s most popular players delicately dance around the fire was the fact that it was happening for the second time on Thursday at the Players Championship.

McIlroy’s seven-under performance during the opening round at TPC Sawgrass became secondary to how it was scored thanks to multiple drops that were cross-examined by his playing partners. The first was at the 18th hole (McIlroy began his round on the 10th tee) after his drive went into the lake, the second at the seventh hole after his tee shot also found water. The issue in both situations stemmed from the question of where his ball last crossed land before entering the penalty area. Though the initial incident on No. 18 was resolved with polite discourse, the latter on No. 7 produced spirited chatter between McIlroy and Spieth, with the streaming broadcast airing the entire back-and-forth for all to hear and see.

There were hand gestures. There were confused looks to rules officials. There was Spieth cautioning McIlroy that “everybody” saw the Ulsterman’s ball failing to cross the red line followed by McIlroy and his caddie Harry Diamond incredulously asking, “Who is everybody, Jordan?” At some point there was a mention of turtles. It was entertaining and ridiculous yet extremely unnecessary with the potential to inadvertently harm the face of the tour.

“I think Jordan was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing," McIlroy explained after the round. "I mean, I was pretty sure that my ball had crossed where I was sort of dropping it. It's so hard, right, because there was no TV evidence. I was adamant. But I think, again, he was just trying to make sure that I was going to do the right thing. If anything, I was being conservative with it. I think at the end of the day we're all trying to protect ourselves, protect the field, as well … I think he was just trying to make sure that what happened was the right thing.”

McIlroy said that he started to “doubt myself a little bit,” but added he was ultimately comfortable, “and I was just making sure that Jordan and Viktor were comfortable, too.” What Spieth and Hovland think, we’ll have to wait another day, as they did not stop after the round to chat.

Regarding what happened at the 18th, McIlroy asserted he was confident he did the right thing, and it was clear that McIlroy was slightly indignant that his honor was in doubt. “Again, like I feel like I'm one of the most conscientious golfers out here, so if I feel like I've done something wrong, it'll play on my conscience for the rest of the tournament,” McIlroy said. “I'm a big believer in karma, and if you do something wrong, I feel like it's going to come around and bite you at some point. I obviously don't try to do anything wrong out there, and play by the rules and do the right thing. I feel like I obviously did that [with] those two drops.”

McIlroy opined that TPC Sawgrass, for whatever reason, is conducive to questions about drops, and on that, look no further than Hovland, who was involved in a similar problem with Daniel Berger just two years ago. Still, Thursday raised the question if that enforcement ultimately should be on the players’ shoulders, and it has nothing to do with hurt feelings or bruised egos.

Rules controversies are the rare time that this civil game can get uncivil. This is a sport that pounds its chest about integrity, that takes pride in allowing players to enforce the rules on themselves. So whenever there’s the hint that this code is broken, well, it’s as close as golf gets to melodrama. But what happened Thursday had an extra layer of theater and story. In the void of true, public-facing leadership in the PGA Tour’s battle against an existential threat, McIlroy stepped into the role and took a stand for what he believed was right. By taking such a public stance on a matter with moral weight, McIlroy was putting himself on the line, and there’s no questioning the character and gumption required to do what he did.

That doesn’t make McIlroy infallible, but to have McIlroy called out not once but twice for potentially iffy drops was counter to everything we know about McIlroy.

Reputations in golf are a fickle thing, and to compromise them for what may or may not have happened hundreds of yards away is an avoidable gamble. Perhaps McIlroy should have been more open to what his opponents were saying, yet there’s a case that he shouldn’t have had to defend himself in the first place; that should have fallen to a rules official. And the current system isn’t just failing the player whose score is in question. It shouldn’t be on opponents to police the field, for that responsibility can put them in awkward, uncomfortable positions that can simultaneously put them in an unfavorable light.

Just because this is how golf has always done it doesn’t mean this is the way it should be. It’s a change easier said than done, one that requires more rules officials and more cameras, two resources that are not in plentiful supply. But this week the PGA Tour is returning its Every Shot At broadcast option and its new television center, set to open in 2025, opens up a world of possibility for how the tour is watched … and in some cases, reviewed.

Much of the conversation this week has been about the tour product, specifically, how it can be enhanced and refined. But the tour’s primary product is its players, and what the tour wants to improve also needs to be protected. In this case, that means protecting them from themselves. As Thursday showed, all it takes is five minutes to make something so valuable so vulnerable.