Wednesday 11 December 2019

McIlroy off to flyer as Spieth falls foul of slow play edict

Rory McIlroy plays his second shot at the 14th hole during the first round of the 2016 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship (Getty)
Rory McIlroy plays his second shot at the 14th hole during the first round of the 2016 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship (Getty)

James Corrigan

Rory McIlroy has urged European Tour officials to "use a bit of common sense" in their war against slow play after the world No 1, Jordan Spieth, became the first player to fall foul of the new policy during the opening round of the Abu Dhabi Championship.

Spieth clearly felt aggrieved and intended to challenge the ruling, which he was told about on his final tee and which could yet lead to an embarrassing fine.

The incident threatened to overshadow a glorious morning, which featured McIlroy delivering, in Spieth's words, "a masterclass" with a 66; as well as an extraordinary 64 by the US Amateur champion, Bryson DeChambeau.

Keith Pelley, the European Tour's recently-installed chief executive, has declared it his mission to speed up the pace of play, and for that he should be applauded - five-hour-plus rounds have become a blight on the sport.

Pelley asked the Tour's referee staff - led by John Paramor - to come up with new ways to tackle the problem, and this week a "monitoring" system has been introduced which is running alongside the usual method of identifying and punishing culprits with shot penalties.

Players will be subjected to sustained monitoring as soon as their group is deemed out of position. Any player who then exceeds the time permitted to play a shot - 50 seconds if first to play and 40 seconds thereafter - will be issued with a "monitoring penalty".

Two monitoring penalties will result in a fine of £2,000. The money would hardly inconvenience Spieth, but he wants neither the notoriety nor the distraction.

"It was a bit odd. I got a bad 'monitoring' time on my putt on the eighth [17th] after they had taken us off the clock and the guys behind us hadn't even reached the fairway," Spieth said. "So it didn't make any sense to me.

If I can, I'll try to wash it away... because it doesn't affect this round, but if I get another one, I'll get fined and I don't think there was necessarily a reason to get that bad time. Rory and Rickie [Fowler] were very surprised."

McIlroy concurred, sticking up for his playing partner. "Sometimes I feel the refs have to use a bit of common sense," he said.

"I've played a lot alongside Jordan and he's far from a slow player. We were not delaying anyone behind us and keeping well up with the group in front, so if we are in position I don't see the need to say anything. It's probably a bit of over-enthusiasm in the first round of the first event of the year."


Paramor later defended the ruling, and explained that Spieth might be confused because of a different interpretation on the PGA Tour.

"Pace of play on the European Tour is measured by whether a group keeps to the starting interval between groups, rather than if they are on the same hole, as it is in America," he said. "Jordan was assessed a monitoring penalty after his putt on the eighth, which I advised him of as he walked to the ninth tee."

Spieth shrugged off the controversy and displayed his renowned mental strength to birdie that concluding hole for a 68, which kept him within four of DeChambeau.

"I didn't drive well today and this is a driver's course, so to shoot four-under is really pleasing," Spieth said. He could hardly credit being within two of McIlroy.

"It was a ball-striking masterclass; it was spectacular. It was the Rory I have seen win Majors," Spieth said.

"It was a pretty unbelievable round on a very challenging course. He was on his A-game and if he keeps striking it like that, I'm going to have to make up for it somewhere else."

But for a few missed tiddlers McIlroy - who had not played competitively for two months - would have been higher on that leaderboard than in a tie for third, alongside South African Branden Grace with Sweden's Henrik Stenson in second, on seven-under.

However, McIlroy was not complaining after eight birdies. "It was a great way to start the year," he said. "I felt in practice last week I was swinging well and I came back fresh and excited to play again. I could not be happier."

You would think the same of DeChambeau, but this disciple of Ben Hogan cannot be judged so straightforwardly. In the quest to perfect a repeatable single plane motion, the 22-year-old has cut all of his irons to the same length, equivalent to that of a standard seven-iron.

He plans to turn pro after playing in the Masters, and looks likely to cause a stir in the game, if not in this tournament.

"I'm an intern, as an amateur playing professional events," he said. "Every day it's a learning process. I'm a golfing scientist, so I don't take it with any emotion." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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