Whatever else Rory McIlroy gets to take away from the 102nd USPGA Championship there is no doubt that his reputation will only be enhanced among the golfing purists. You can say what you like about the Northern Irishman's competitive attitude — and many do and will — but there surely cannot be any questioning his approach to what he regards as proper sportsmanship in the game he adores.
McIlroy is in the Bobby Jones school of thought when it comes to the rulebook. The greatest amateur of all time famously declared at the 1925 US Open “you may as well praise me for not robbing a bank” after he was hailed for calling a penalty on himself that only he knew about. It cost Jones the title to Scotland’s Willie Macfarlane.
When quizzed about his own moment of honour during Friday’s second round at Harding Park, San Francisco, McIlroy seemed similarly nonplussed. Except, his actions could even be classed as more principled than those of Jones. Because here was a golfer who deliberately gave himself a worse lie to the one chosen by a referee.
The incident occurred on the par-three third, after the world No 3 had sliced his tee shot into the thick rough. A search ensued, during which an on-course ESPN reporter unwittingly stepped on McIlroy’s ball. Under the recently introduced Rule 7.4, McIlroy was allowed to re-place it, without penalty, based on an “estimate” of where it was initially. The rules official pointed to an appropriate area where McIlroy duly placed his ball.
McIlroy was free to go and try to save par. Except he was not comfortable and said to the referee: “It would not have been as visible as that.” So he bent down and buried it a little further in the cabbage. The best he could manage from that lie was a pitch to within 22 feet, from where he two-putted for a bogey. Suddenly, the clapping emoji appeared all over social media and four hours later, when he could eventually explain his thought process, he was still being congratulated.
“I just wouldn't have felt comfortable,” McIlroy said after signing for a 69. “I placed it, and the rule is try to replicate the lie. No one really knew what the lie was, but if everyone is going around looking for it, it obviously wasn't too good. So I placed it, I was like, that just doesn't look right to me. So I just placed it down a little bit.
“You know, at the end of the day, golf is a game of integrity and I never try to get away with anything out there. I'd rather be on the wrong end of the rules rather than on the right end.”
The proceedings were reminiscent of Darren Clarke at the 2006 Irish Open. Leading by two when play was called for bad weather on the Sunday evening, Clarke returned the next morning to the spot on the ninth where his ball had finished after a wayward drive moments before the hooter had sounded.
Lo and behold, the leprechauns had been at work overnight and what was a poor lie was now so decent that the crowd favourite could reach the green. But Clarke refused to accept his good fortune electing to chip it out into the fairway instead. "That's part and parcel of the game,” he later said after finishing third being his great friend Thomas Bjorn. “It was a much better lie than when I left it. I had the opportunity to hit it on to the green, but my conscience wouldn't allow that.”
Of course, Clarke was something of a mentor to McIlroy and the protege will certainly recall the episode. Like now, the sanctity of the rulebook was under the spotlight at the time with a few high-profile affairs, including Colin Montgomerie’s notorious drop in Jakarta the previous year.
McIlroy’s rectitude occurred a week after Bryson DeChambeau shamelessly tried to bend the rulebook in his favour by claiming that his ball was near an anthill and as they were red ants, it was a “dangerous situation” and he was entitled to relief under Rule 16: "Relief from Abnormal Course Conditions (Including Immovable Obstructions), Dangerous Animal Condition, Embedded Ball.”
Two weeks before that, at The Memorial, DeChambeau was heard criticising “another garbage ruling” when insisting to a referee — who, as, fate would have it was the same official as in the fire-ant farce — that he was entitled to play a shot that was resting against an out-of-bounds fence. He obviously was not and annoyed the locker room, by calling for a second ruling. The next referee summarily dismissed DeChambeau’s argument.
There have also been mutterings on the range concerning DeChambeau’s dropping “technique” on his way to that almost comical 10 at Muirfield Village. In the new rules, designed in part to quicken up the pace of play, golfers are required to come as close as possible to the original spot within a club length. That can be up to four feet and advantages can inevitably be found in such an area, if the player is willing to exploit this loophole.
Was all this on McIlroy’s mind? We might never know, for sure, but we can hazard an accurate guess.
As it was, McIlroy goes out in the third round on Saturday on one-under, seven behind the leader China’s Haotong Li, with England’s Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose in a group in second, two off the pace. DeChambeau was on two-under.