Rory McIlroy was given a two-stroke penalty on Friday in the second round of the 2019 The Northern Trust. And then, less than two hours later, it was rescinded by the PGA Tour.
How all that happened is an example of golf's confusing rules but also how these kinds of situations should work out at the highest level of competitive golf.
McIlroy was playing the par-3 14th hole at Liberty National Golf Club when his ball ended up in a bunker on the 150-yard hole (with a killer view of New York harbor). McIlroy spotted what he thought was a rock behind the ball. Under the Rules of Golf, players are allowed to remove loose impediments that might be in the bunker and potentially in the way of their line of play. This is to prevent needless club deflections or damage.
However, when McIlroy went to move what he believed to be a rock, it turned out he had grabbed a clump of sand, which turned into individual grains of sand. Under the Rules of Golf and Rule 8-1, a player cannot improve their lie in a bunker by moving sand away from the ball. That ruling meant McIlroy was subject to a two-stroke penalty, and he fell five shots adrift of the lead.
Rory McIlroy thought he was removing a loose impediment from a bunker, but then realized it was just sand.
He alerted a rules official and was given a two-shot penalty.
He was three back of the lead at the time of the penalty. pic.twitter.com/Ayp8zWw9Ei
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) August 9, 2019
McIlroy insisted to rules officials with the PGA Tour that he didn't intend to move sand and reiterated his genuine belief that he was moving a rock. He didn't realize it wasn't a rock until he moved it.
So, McIlroy played out the round, and then spoke again with PGA Tour officials, who had consulted with the USGA, which is based in New Jersey where the Tour is playing this week.
“The rules are the rules. But I knew that that rule had changed this year, and I just wasn't quite sure if that was the right ruling that was given on the course,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure.”
After a discussion, the USGA affirmed the penalty could be rescinded under Rule 8-1 with a decision under the Rules of Golf that doesn't penalize a player who makes a genuine unwitting mistake in such a situation, given they don't improve their lie.
“They sort of went back and forth a little bit, and then it came down to me and they said, 'OK, are you comfortable telling us you didn't improve your lie,' and for me, I am comfortable saying that,” McIlroy said.
After speaking with @PGATOURRules at the completion of R2 @TheNTGolf , the two-stroke penalty that @McIlroyRory was assessed for touching what he thought was a rock in a bunker on the par-3 14th hole has been rescinded. He sits 65-68–133 (-9) through 36 holes.
— PGA TOUR Communications (@PGATOURComms) August 9, 2019
It may have turned out to work in McIlroy's favor in a way. He birdied his next hole in a bit to try to get the penalty strokes back.
“In a way, it nearly worked in my favor,” McIlroy said. "It was like, OK, I sort of need to get these two shots back, and I had a little bit more intensity the next few holes. I guess my mind set was I wanted to get those two shots back that I had lost, that I thought I had lost in the bunker.”
McIlroy is three strokes back of leader Dustin Johnson heading into the weekend.