Rory McIlroy was given a two-shot penalty at the Northern Trust for touching the sand in a bunker. But it was soon rescinded. Steve Carroll delves into the Rules of Golf to explain why

This never would have happened under the old rules. After a summer lull, when it seemed we were all getting used to the new decrees, the Rules of Golf were thrust front and centre into the limelight once more at The Northern Trust, in New Jersey, as it appeared none other than Rory McIlroy had come a cropper.

The Northern Irishman was given a two-shot penalty during the second round when he went to remove what he thought was a rock while in a greenside bunker on the 14th hole. It turned out to be a piece of sand.

But later, after a chat with Slugger White, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules and competition, the punishment was rescinded.

Why the change of heart? To understand what’s going on, you need to know Rule 12, specifically 12.2a and 12.2b, and 8.1.

Until January, what you could do in a bunker was pretty clear: Don’t, under any circumstances, touch the sand until club was going through ball on a stroke.

Plenty of clubs, though, employed their own Local Rules which allowed players to remove loose impediments in a bunker. So why not write that into the Rules?

Rule 12.2a, introduced at the start of the year, says that “before playing a ball in a bunker, a player may remove loose impediments under Rule 15.1 and movable obstructions under Rule 15.2.

“This includes any reasonable touching or movement of the sand in the bunker that happens while doing so.”

All seems pretty clear, so what’s the problem?

Rory McIlroy

Well, there are some restrictions. Rule 12.2b says that, before making a stroke at a ball in a bunker, a player must not “deliberately touch sand in the bunker with a hand, club, rake or other object to test the condition of the sand to learn information for the next stroke”.

You are also not allowed to deliberately touch sand “in the area right in front of or right behind the ball” – with the exception of removing a loose impediment or movable obstruction.

And you can receive the general penalty – that’s Rules speak for two shots – if a player’s actions “in touching the sand improve the conditions affecting the stroke in breach of Rule 8.1a”.

This Rule covers areas such as the lie of the player’s ball at rest.

The clump that McIlroy moved lay close behind his ball and it appears this is where the confusion arose.

PGA Tour official Dave Donnelly felt – as did the officials on the walkie-talkie – that as Rory had touched the sand behind the ball it was going to be a penalty.

McIlroy’s defence revolved around the insistence that he was not deliberately touching the sand, he was simply removing what he thought was a loose impediment – as the rules allow him to do.

White came to the same conclusion. Then it came down to the question of whether Rory improved the conditions of the stroke.

One Slugger was satisfied, under 8,1, that he hadn’t, the penalty was reversed.

What Rory McIlroy had to say

“They reviewed it. So I knew that rule had changed this year a little bit in the bunkers or the penalty areas or whatever they are calling it. I thought there was a rock behind like sort of beside my ball, and I went to pick it up. So I touched it and I realized it wasn’t a rock, so I just went ‘oh, that’s not a rock’, but I touched the sand,

“It’s such a grey area. But the way the rule is written, it’s like 12.1 and then refers to 8.2 or whatever it is, but it says if there’s no intent and if you haven’t improved your lie, and you haven’t improved your line of play; and I’m very comfortable.

“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.

“They got the USGA involved. Rang them. They sort of went back and forth a little bit, and then it came down to that. In a way, it came down to me and [they] said ‘okay, are you comfortable telling us you didn’t improve your lie?’ and for me, I am comfortable saying that.”

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