Given that he missed the cut at the same event last year, days after officially signing a lucrative, multi-year endorsement with Nike Golf, Rory McIlroy has every reason to view finishing joint second in this year’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship as progress.
However, the two-time major winner clearly wasn’t for seeing it that way, after a two-shot penalty for taking an incorrect drop in round three saw him finish one behind winner Pablo Larrazabal, as opposed to one shot in front.
McIlroy’s infraction was applied following his third round after he left his foot on the line of a spectator pathway – onto which he had just driven – when he took a free drop on the 18th hole.
Rule 25/1 states that, if a player takes a drop, he or she must take full relief. In other words, they can’t leave their foot where McIlroy did.
Scots caddie Dave Renwick, on the bag of the former world No.1’s playing partner Ricardo Gonzalez, alerted McIlroy to his error after his round and, after consulting with the European Tour’s chief referee John Paramor, the 24-year-old was hit with a two-shot penalty, turning his 68 into a 70 and leaving him three shots adrift going into the final day.
Of course, better that than disqualification for signing an incorrect score, which he would have done had it not been for Renwick’s intervention. Even so, he couldn’t hide his frustration.
Pledging to ‘run myself into the ground’ in the gym to ‘get some of the frustration out’, McIlroy fumed: “There are many stupid rules in golf and this is one of them.”
"I can count it as a moral victory more than anything else" - Rory McIlroy
That’s as maybe. But the fact is that it is a rule. And, ultimately, McIlroy’s failure to apply it properly in this self-officiating sport cost him a perfect start to the year.
“I can't describe it,” he said after his final round of 68 left him on 13-under-par, one shot shy of winner Larrazabal. “I feel like I'm standing here and I should be 15‑under-par for the tournament and win by one. But that's the way it goes. I played the least shots of anyone this week. So, I mean, I can count it as a moral victory more than anything else.
“It’s frustrating. I've played well the whole week. It's a very positive start to the season so I'm not going to let one little negative ruin that.”
Asked if he had been able to put the penalty behind him during his final round, McIlroy added: “Yeah, I was, until I finished one behind on the 18th and then it started to dawn on me if that had not happened, I would have won. But that's the way it goes. I tried to win today and nearly did.”
A brush with the rules aside, McIlroy will take some comfort from the overall state of his game in the UAE following a generally torrid 2013.
He added: “I feel good about my game and feel like I'm back to the place that I want to be and I'm driving the ball well, hitting the ball solid and giving myself plenty of chances for birdies. And if I can keep doing that, the wins will come.
“I came in here telling everyone that I'm really happy with my game and done some good work and felt like it was coming together for me at the end of last year. I've continued that on. So, yeah, really excited for the rest of the season. Got a week off now to prepare for Dubai and give it another run there and see if I can get the win there.”
What did you think of McIlroy’s performance in Abu Dhabi?
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