he moral high ground is unlikely to precede a competitive low score. If Rory McIlroy’s bid for a third US PGA Championship falls short by one – and for now at least, that remains a big if – his reflections on an endearing moment of sportsmanship would be valid.
The Northern Irishman acted against his own hopes of glory at Harding Park by affording himself a clear conscience. McIlroy’s nod to the principles of the game was timely.
Bryson DeChambeau’s forceful discussions with rules officials have overshadowed all that is good about the Californian’s post-lockdown PGA Tour run. If there is an envelope, DeChambeau will push it. Golfers who operate within the spirit of the rules should always be more worthy of praise than those who view them as a way of gaining marginal advantage.
The absence of spectators at the first major of 2020 has umpteen side-effects, even for someone as prominent as McIlroy. Finding wayward balls is more tricky without several thousand spotters. So it proved at the short 3rd during round two, as McIlroy required a search party to locate a loose tee shot. The ball was located only after a member of the media stood on it.
McIlroy was allowed a drop, creating the original lie as before a size 10 shoe was planted on his ball. When McIlroy took the relief, the position was favourable. Uncomfortable with this, the recently deposed world No 1 pushed the ball further down in the grass. That a costly bogey ensued didnot alter McIlroy’s belief he hand done the right thing.
“I just wouldn’t have felt comfortable,” said McIlroy of his original drop. “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.
“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 because as golfers, that’s just what we believe.”
Colin Montgomerie has never fully lived down a controversial drop in Indonesian Open of 2005. Instead, McIlroy’s move conjured memories of his countryman and childhood influence, Darren Clarke, at the 2006 Irish Open. Play at Carton House had been abandoned because of bad weather, with Clarke two shots ahead. He returned for a delayed Monday finish to discover his ball, originally in thick rough, had been adjusted by fairies to suddenly be in a position whereby the green could be hit in two. “It was much better than when I left it,” Clarke said later. He chipped out sideways, the only shot he could initially have hit, and was widely lauded. “Honesty is part and parcel of the game and I could not have acted any other way,” he explained. Thomas Bjorn pipped Clarke to win the tournament.
Galleries used to be so fundamental. Paul Casey became the latest player to admit he has struggled with the absence of fans during golf’s return. “I’ve really missed it, plain and simple,” said the Englishman, who has played himself into US PGA prominence. “I’ve felt I’ve not been able to sort of just get the excitement going, lacking energy and all that goes with having fans at a sporting event at a golf tournament. I just genuinely miss it.”
While that has also been McIlroy’s default position, he could witness the side benefits when spending days one and two with Woods. The event’s marquee grouping, which would normally be swamped by crowds, played in relative tranquility. “100%, it’s so much easier,” said McIlroy of accompanying Woods.
“I’m happy to be drawn with him every week until fans come back. On the 12th hole, the tee box there alongside the road, Tiger gets on the tee and everyone [looking through the fence] goes crazy and you have to wait for them to settle down. The fact that we don’t have to deal with that and the fact that he doesn’t have to deal with that every week is sort of nice. I still want crowds to come back. It’s much better to play in front of them. But it does make it easier [with Woods].”