Nitpicky rule derails Rory McIlroy

Yep, as Rory McIlroy said, this is a silly one. A seemingly quirky rule that cost him dearly Saturday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. One that had him fuming afterward, dropping him from 1 stroke out of the lead at the European Tour event to 3 behind heading into the final round.

Apparently, the rules dramas that played out in 2013 are continuing into this year.

Already we've seen Sergio Garcia questioned about his handling of a ball mark in the first round of the event in Abu Dhabi (he was not in violation of tapping down something in his line.) Now McIlroy begins the new year with a 2-stroke penalty for failing to take full relief from an area deemed to be ground under repair.

"There are some stupid rules in golf, and this is one of them," McIlroy told reporters after he had to change his score from a 68 to a 70.

According to the European Tour, McIlroy was in breach of Rule 25/1. His ball on the second hole had come to rest in a spectator crosswalk that was framed by white lines. That is considered ground under repair. McIlroy could have played the ball, but he elected to take a drop within a club length, to which he is entitled.

But, when he played his shot, his left foot was just on the line or over it. Nit-picking, to be sure. But the rule states that you take full relief. In other words, you can't be partially in the area from which you are taking the drop. If a player elects to take relief from a cart path, for example, he is not allowed to stand on the path, not even partially.

This might be a dumb rule, and McIlroy is right to be angry about it. But he should know better, and so should his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald. Perhaps he was so close to the line, the events occurring so quickly, that they missed it. But another caddie in the group spotted the violation; he waited until after the round to tell McIlroy, so as not to distract him but also in time to make sure he could review the situation before signing his scorecard.

Had the violation come to light after McIlroy signed his card, he would have been disqualified.

"I am going to go and hit the gym so hard," said McIlroy, who trails Scotland's Craig Lee by 3 strokes. "I am going to run myself into the ground to try to get some of the frustration out."

McIlroy, 24, is unlikely to face the same venom heaped upon Tiger Woods last year when the world's No. 1-ranked player had four high-profile rules issues, three of which cost him 2 strokes in each instance.

He made a mistake, and they happen all the time in golf. Woods can attest, as one of his errors happened at the same Abu Dhabi Golf Club a year ago, costing him a missed cut.

Woods had taken relief from an embedded lie, had even asked a player in his group, Martin Kaymer, whether it was OK. Kaymer signed off, and Woods took the drop -- not realizing until later that his ball was deemed to be in sand, from which you are not allowed relief.

There was also the 2-shot penalty at the Masters -- where Woods did not drop close enough to his original spot after hitting a shot into a hazard -- and another at the BMW Championship, where high-definition video determined that his ball had moved slightly when Woods was removing debris.

Those incidents together added up to a lot of grief for Woods, but, as was the case again Saturday, the rules are complex and even the best in the game will run afoul of them.

This is the fourth straight year there has been a major rules issue at the Abu Dhabi tournament. In 2011, Padraig Harrington was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard when it was later determined through high-definition video that his ball had moved on a green and he did not replace it.

That incident later helped lead to a rules change (33-7/4.5) that would save a player from disqualification in such incidents. Starting Jan. 1 of this year, a new Decision (18/4) stipulates that, if it takes high-definition or slow-motion video to determine that a ball moved, there is no penalty.

Two years ago, McIlroy also was penalized 2 strokes in Abu Dhabi, that time for clearing debris from his line on the ninth hole before he played a shot from off the green. McIlroy ended up 1 shot out of a playoff. Then there was last year's rules issue for Woods, and now again this year for McIlroy.

Veteran caddie Dave Renwick, who was caddying for Ricardo Gonzalez in McIlroy's group, spotted the possible violation and pointed it out afterward. When video evidence was inconclusive, McIlroy accompanied European Tour rules official John Paramor to the spot on the second hole.

"We went out to see it again and see my divot, and it was clear I could not have played my shot with my feet anywhere else," McIlroy said. "It's unfortunate. If anything, it was a disadvantage because I dropped it in a bad lie and did not make birdie.

"I have to try and make up the shots as early as possible tomorrow. It gives me a bit of extra motivation."

Golf's rules have claimed another victim, and this surely won't be the last time in 2014.

At least it wasn't a viewer calling in the infraction from afar.