Rory McIlroy in desert storm after 'stupid' rule rage
So much for 2014 being Rory McIlroy's turbulent-free journey back up the rankings. In his first tournament of the year, the Ulster man was at the centre of a saga in Abu Dhabi yesterday which saw him label some of golf's rules as "stupid" after being hit with a two-shot penalty.
McIlroy walked off the 18th green believing his birdie at the par five had taken him to within one of the Abu Dhabi Championship leader, Craig Lee. Yet at that point, Dave Renwick, the caddie of his playing partner Ricardo Gonzalez, advised McIlroy not to sign his scorecard and so his day unravelled.
On the second hole, McIlroy drove on to a spectator pathway, from where he was entitled either to play or to take a free drop. But Rule 25/1 demands that if the player drops, he or she must take full relief. Renwick, who was standing 30 yards away, noticed McIlroy's left foot on the white line when he played his approach, but did not have time to shout.
Renwick -- one of the most experienced caddies in the game, who has worked for the likes of Vijay Singh, Jose Maria Olazabal and Lee Westwood -- decided nothing would be gained by informing McIlroy of the breach until after the round.
McIlroy was stunned when told and, despite Renwick assuring the officials he was "adamant", the referees were summoned to check the videotapes. The coverage was inconclusive, however, and so McIlroy, together with Renwick, and the chief referee John Paramor, returned by buggy to the second hole.
As soon as McIlroy saw the divot mark, he conceded his left foot could not have been anywhere else. And so instead of shooting a 68 to lie at 11-under, his score was altered to a 70 to leave him on nine-under, three behind the Scot. McIlroy, shaken, vowed to "make a quick start tomorrow", although he could have been forgiven a foreboding sense of deja vu.
Two years ago, at this event, he came second, one behind the shock winner, Robert Rock. During the second round he incurred a two-shot penalty when Luke Donald pointed out that he cleared away sand which was not on the putting surface. On that occasion, McIlroy confessed he had been "a little bit brain-dead".
In truth, this rule is just as well-known and it is remarkable that neither McIlroy, or his caddie JP Fitzgerald, were aware that he was at fault at the time of the shot. "I was so wrapped up in the shot I didn't notice," McIlroy said. "There are many stupid rules in golf and this is one of them."
McIlroy's contention was that he did not gain any sort of advantage; indeed, the opposite. "I dropped it into a bad lie," he said. "If I'd noticed my foot was on the line I could have dropped it again."
As McIlroy acknowledged, Renwick was completely in the right. There are so many armchair vigilantes out there nowadays, with one hand on the remote and the other holding a rules book, that there was every chance McIlroy's infraction would have been spotted overnight and the result would have been disqualification.
Yet that thought was of little consolation. "I'm going to hit the gym so hard," McIlroy said. "I'm going to run myself into the ground to try to get some of the frustration out -- then have room service and lock myself away."
This is just the latest in a long line of high-profile golfers falling foul of the regulations and will inevitably add fuel to the debate about whether the professionals are appropriately aware of the rules -- whether petty or not.
Yet McIlroy's sour mood was understandable. He had continued the fine form of the week, hitting 17 greens in regulation. After the travails of 2013 the last thing he wanted was controversy at the start of what will still surely be his comeback season.
Lee will instead set out in search of his maiden title in the company of Phil Mickelson and India's Gaganjeet Bhullar -- both two behind on 10-under -- as the organisers try to force a finish before the forecast storms. Mickelson's round of 63 was constructed in trademark "Phil the Thrill" fashion, with one eagle, nine birdies and two bogeys.
The grandstands on the 18th witnessed Mickelson at his finest: unwisely going for the green with a fairway wood from a bunker and then somehow cajoling a chip from a waste area under a tree and over the greenside traps to 40 feet. The cheers were raucous, but nobody was genuinely surprised when he holed the putt.
Lee had still to tee off when the left-hander finished and the 36-year-old performed valiantly to post a 69 and so stay in front. But today will be the real test, particularly with McIlroy saying he's "extra motivated".
"I really wanted to win this event anyway," McIlroy said. "But I really, really want to now."