McIlroy: I knew the rule -- I just didn't know where my foot was
It's uncommon for the player who hits the fewest shots to have to settle for second place, but Rory McIlroy now has experienced that heartrending anomaly twice in three years in Abu Dhabi.
McIlroy shared second place on 13-under with Phil Mickelson, one behind HSBC Championship winner Pablo Larrazabal of Spain, giving the 24-year-old greater cause to rue the two-shot penalty he incurred on Saturday for the golfing equivalent of a 'foot-fault.'
While the Ulsterman consoled himself with a "moral victory" of sorts, Mickelson shot himself in the foot by squandering a one-shot lead with a triple-bogey seven at 13, which was bizarre even by his standards.
After blocking his drive into a thorn bush, Mickelson felt he had no option but to try and "dribble" the ball out right-handed with his four-iron. "I wanted to use the lob wedge, but it wouldn't reach," explained Mickelson.
In the process of playing this convoluted shot, Mickelson double-hit his ball. "Not only did it cost me a penalty stroke, it also stopped the ball from going to a spot where I could hit it again," he sighed.
Still, the American icon brilliantly restored his pride by shooting three birdies down the stretch. "I got refocused and aggressive and gave myself a chance. Had Pablo not birdied the last, I'd have gotten into a play-off. So, I give him every credit for finishing off the tournament the right way."
McIlroy lost by one stroke to England's Robert Rock here in 2012 after being docked two strokes on Sunday for absent-mindedly brushing sand from in front of his ball as it lay in the fringe left of the ninth green, an infraction brought to his attention by playing companion Luke Donald.
On Saturday, McIlroy was walking off 18 convinced he had forced his way to within one stroke of third-round leader Craig Lee of Scotland with a faultless 68, when Dave Rennick, caddie to Ricardo Gonzales, advised him to speak to a rules official about a likely infringement on the second.
Renwick believed he had seen McIlroy play his third shot at the second with his left foot either inside or on the line of the crosswalk.
Too far away to alert him, the veteran Scottish caddie decided it was in the youngster's best interests to keep his suspicions to himself until after McIlroy had completed his round, but, importantly, before he signed his card.
Renwick left a note in McIlroy's locker yesterday morning wishing him well and explaining he "couldn't have lived with himself" if he had not brought the breach to light and the Ulsterman had won by one yesterday.
Neither McIlroy nor his caddie JP Fitzgerald noticed the encroachment, but when the player returned to the scene with European Tour chief referee John Paramour and Renwick "it was clear that my foot had to be on the line to play the shot," contrary to rule 25-1.
This transgression didn't gain him any advantage. In fact, McIlroy pointed out: "I had a bad lie and if I had known I was standing on the line, I'd have happily dropped my ball again."
All of which compounded McIlroy's frustration that evening, leading him to say: "there are a lot of stupid rules in golf and this is one of them."
No doubt, many rules of this game must seem archaic, arcane or even absurd to non-golfers, but 25-1 is well-founded. It makes perfect sense to ensure full relief is achieved. Otherwise a lot of time might be wasted re-dropping the ball, perhaps even in an effort to achieve a better lie.
When the blood is boiling, we all say things we don't mean, which might explain one even more disappointing remark from McIlroy on Saturday.
Asked if he or other top players keep updating themselves about changes or refreshing their memory of the rules of the game, the Ulsterman retorted: "No, I guess that's why we've got the referees here. They sort of do that stuff. I've got better things to think about."
This isn't the first time McIlroy has taken an unfortunate or untenable stance under media questioning, and Saturday's tetchy response to a reasonable question led one to wonder how he might perform under intensive cross-examination from an expert barrister in court.
Significantly, he confirmed yesterday that he knew he had to take full relief from the spectator crosswalk, insisting: "I knew the rule, I just didn't know where my foot was."
Despite this unfortunate episode, McIlroy's first tournament outing of 2014 was immensely impressive as he took up from where he left off with November's Australian Open victory in Sydney.
Abu Dhabi this year certainly stood in stark relief to 12 months ago, when he missed the cut and set a sorry template for a season of frustration and discontent.
McIlroy might have rendered that two-stroke penalty academic yesterday if he had not blocked his tee shot at the fifth into a bush, leading to his only bogey, or managed to hit his drives at 16 and 17 on to the fairway.
Yet his overall performance with the driver was outstanding, while confidence once again appears to be coursing through every department of his game, with McIlroy looking especially assured with the putter.
Revealing he worked off his frustrations in the gym on Saturday evening, McIlroy said: "then I just had a quiet night, a quiet meal and went to bed. Caroline (Wozniacki, his fiancée) came in early this morning (direct from the Australian Open in Melbourne) and surprised me, which was nice.
"I played the least shots of anyone this week, so I'm standing here and feel like I should be 15-under par for the tournament and have won by one, but I'm also really happy with my game.
"I feel like it's back in a place where I want it to be and I'm really excited for the rest of the season," added McIlroy, who tees it up in the Dubai Desert Classic on Thursday week.