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McIlroy penalty for improving bunker lie reversed

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Rory McIlroy had a 2-stroke penalty rescinded at the Northern Trust on Friday after PGA Tour rules officials conferred with the United States Golf Association and determined there was no intent by the player to improve his lie in a bunker.

McIlroy went to remove what he thought was a stone behind his ball on the 14th hole at Liberty National. That is now allowed under new rules that were revamped starting in 2019.

McIlroy discovered that it wasn't a stone but a clump of sand. Although nobody saw the potential infraction, McIlroy made rules officials aware of what he had done, and he was originally penalized because doing so can be deemed to be testing the surface.

McIlroy argued his point, took the 2-stroke penalty, but said he would not sign his card afterward until consulting a rulebook himself.

"It's such a gray area,'' said McIlroy, who finished with a score of 68 and is in a tie for seventh, 3 strokes back of leader Dustin Johnson. Had the penalty been assessed, McIlroy would have been in a tie for 15th, 5 back. "But the way the rule is written ... it says if there's no intent and you haven't improved your lie and you haven't improved your line of play, [there is no penalty].

"The reason I called someone over is I don't want anything on my conscience, either. I feel like I play the game with integrity and I'm comfortable saying that I didn't improve anything. I thought it was a rock; it wasn't. I moved my hand away and then I was like, I don't know if I've done anything wrong here.''

While McIlroy played the last four holes -- he birdied the 15th -- PGA Tour rules official Slugger White conferred with officials at the USGA and determined that there would be no penalty after all. They told McIlroy of the decision after consulting with him at the conclusion of his round.

"In a way, it nearly worked in my favor,'' McIlroy said. "It was like, OK, I sort of need to get these 2 shots back, and I had a little bit more intensity the next few holes. I could have birdied 15, 16 and 17 there. I was able to birdie the tougher of those three holes, so I guess my mindset was I wanted to get those 2 shots back that I had lost, that I thought I had lost in the bunker. I wasn't quite able to do that, but that was a huge putt for par on 18, but then obviously with the ruling on the course overturned, it feels better.

"The rules are the rules. But I knew that that rule had changed this year, and I was just -- I just wasn't quite sure if that was the right ruling that was given on the course. I just wanted to make sure.''