2024 Players Championship: McIlroy, 'big believer in karma,' says he's 'comfortable' with drops

2024 Players Championship: McIlroy, 'big believer in karma,' says he's 'comfortable' with drops

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – A game that’s been overrun by talk of poached players, outrageous paydays and contentious negotiations desperately needed something to change the narrative, even for a day. Enter Rory McIlroy and “the drops.”

Nothing stirs the golfing public like a controversy, either real or perceived, and McIlroy delivered on Day 1 at The Players Championship, which had been largely overlooked amid headlines about the Tour’s ongoing rift with LIV Golf and its negotiations with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

The Northern Irishman also posted an impressive 65 for a share of the early lead, but first, the drops.

Following a flawless start to his day that included 8-of-8 greens in regulation and six birdies through eight holes, McIlroy tugged his drive at the par-4 18th hole (he started on No. 10) into the lake left of the fairway. He ended up taking a drop 290 yards from the hole but not before a conversation with Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland, who were grouped with the world No. 2.

Determining where a ball crosses into a hazard – or in McIlroy’s case, where it bounced into the hazard – is an inexact science and the Stadium Course, with its ubiquitous water hazards and winding doglegs, lends itself to second-guessing.

“I think this golf course more than any other, it sort of produces those situations a little bit,” said McIlroy, who hit his third shot at No. 18 to 60 feet and two-putted for a “good” bogey.

It was more of the same for McIlroy on his second nine with birdies at Nos. 2, 4 and 6, and more solid iron play, which is notable because of his struggles from the fairway last week at Bay Hill -- until the par-4 seventh hole. Another pulled drive, another water ball, and another debate about whether his ball bounced in play before it entered the hazard, with Spieth and Hovland questioning McIlroy’s assessment about where the ball crossed.

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Lengthy drop debate after Rory water ball; Spieth, Hovland skip media

McIlroy found the water off the tee at No. 7 Thursday at TPC Sawgrass, though no one was 100% sure where the ball crossed.

“I think Jordan was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing,” said McIlroy, who discussed the drop for about eight minutes with Spieth, Hovland and a rules official, before playing his third shot. “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, again, [Spieth] was just trying to make sure that I was going to do the right thing.”

McIlroy explained he’s "a big believer in karma" and always wants to be on the correct side of the Rules of Golf.

“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,” said McIlroy, who hit his third shot short of the green and failed to get up and down for a double-bogey 6.

Social media was quick to either condemn or condone McIlroy’s actions and it didn’t go unnoticed that neither Hovland nor Spieth stopped to talk with the media after the round. In fact, Spieth ran from the scoring area to the clubhouse after signing his scorecard.

The Stadium Course is no stranger to these types of armchair rules official controversies. In 2013, Tiger Woods pulled his drive at the par-4 14th hole into the swamp and received what was deemed by some a controversial drop. That drop was widely questioned despite Casey Wittenberg, who was paired with Woods, agreeing with where Tiger said the ball crossed into the hazard.

Without an agreeable playing partner or video evidence to prove McIlroy’s theory that both tee shots bounced above the hazard line before diving into the watery abyss, the faceless horde on social media will be left to sort this out. But when asked if he were “comfortable” with both drops, McIlroy left no room for ambiguity: “I'm comfortable. I think that's the most important thing,” he said.

Beyond the controversy du jour, McIlroy’s game left no room for doubt. Following a frustrating Sunday at Bay Hill and a 76 that dropped him into a tie for 21st, the opening 65 at TPC Sawgrass was a statistical heel turn.

Haunted this year by iron shots that start left and keep moving in that direction, McIlroy said earlier this week he’s been stuck between two swings. At Bay Hill, he was second in the field in strokes gained: off the tee behind only Scottie Scheffler, and 55th out of 58 players who made the cut in strokes gained: approach the green. He hit just eight of 18 greens in regulation on Sunday at Arnie’s Place, the same number he hit through eight holes on Thursday.

“I'm not sure how the strokes gained: approach stats look, but it's probably been one of my best days in a while, which is really nice,” McIlroy said. “The feeling is good with the irons and the feeling with the driver and the 3-wood is just a little bit different. But as long as I remind myself on the tee box that, OK, this is a wood, and I get on the fairway and, this is an iron, and I've got two different feels and two different thoughts, then it's OK.”

The two glaring exceptions to that take, at Nos. 18 and 7, were the byproduct of being “a bit guidey, a bit uncommitted,” he explained, before adding that a 7-under 65 with two penalty strokes is a bit of an anomaly.

That score is also a nice respite from recent headlines in the game. Even if it did come with more controversy.