[PHOTO: Keyur Khamar]

For eight holes on the opening morning, Rory McIlroy could do no wrong. Three straight birdies to start, then three more on 14, 16 and 17 (McIlroy began on the back nine), put the former Players champion at six-under. Outright leader at the time. He was bouncing around TPC Sawgrass as only he can.

All it takes is one iffy swing at Sawgrass’ par-4 18th to kill the vibe, though. Not even a man dressed in full leprechaun garb left of the tee could luck McIlroy’s ball back into the fairway as it hooked directly towards the water down the left side. Well, maybe not directly towards the water, which led to another issue entirely.

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McIlroy believed his ball had last crossed land somewhere between a red stake some 300 yards from the hole and a group of birds perched just on the edge of the fairway a few metres ahead. His playing partners, Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland, had their doubts. This is not Hovland’s first rodeo when it comes to “where it last crossed” discourse at this event, after a similar debate with Daniel Berger in 2022. McIlroy allowed Spieth to hit first before the discussion over re-teeing or taking his drop up in the fairway continued.

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Spieth, who is never afraid to talk it out, wasn’t entirely sure of the exact point it last crossed. Hovland’s caddie, Australian Shay Knight, said to McIlroy, “That’s where I had it, too,” indicating he agreed with McIlroy’s opinion. Once that happened, the group marched ahead and McIlroy took his drop in the fairway, 293 yards from the hole. His towering 3-wood found the green 60 feet from the hole and he escaped with a two-putt bogey. Everyone seemed at peace with how it all played out.

Seven holes later, however, came DropGate Part 2, and this one featured a much livelier discussion than the one that took place on the 18th tee. At the par-4 seventh, McIlroy again pulled his tee shot, though this time it appeared to hit grass first before bounding into the water on the PGA Tour live feed. McIlroy went up to the spot he believed it crossed, measured his two club-lengths and then took his drop. Then all hell broke loose:

The issue in question was whether or not McIlroy’s ball had first landed on the right side of the red line. McIlroy was adamant that it had, hence why he took his drop. Seven minutes of discussion later and he suddenly wasn’t as sure.

“I was adamant that I saw it bounce above the red line,” he said afterwards. “But then when someone comes in and says… well, someone thought that it didn’t. Then you’re like – it just puts some doubt in your mind. Again, it’s up to you to be comfortable enough with your decision that you did see what you saw, I guess.”

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Much like the situation at the 18th, all three players ultimately agreed on the spot. McIlroy failed to escape with bogey this time, just missing a 10-footer and cleaning up the rest for what could have been a momentum-killing double-bogey 6. On his final hole of the day, the par-5 ninth, he poured in a birdie putt from 17 feet to get one of those two shots back and finish with a seven-under 65 despite two water balls. A “take that” fist pump immediately followed.

“It was disappointing not to get that up-and-down on seven, but that’s probably why I give it a little mini-fist pump on nine to feel like I got one of those shots back,” he said.

Hovland, who finished at two-over, declined to speak with the media. As did Spieth, who finished at one-over. McIlroy said afterwards he had no issue with how both situations at the 18th and the seventh were handled.

“I think Jordan was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing,” McIlroy said. “I mean, I was pretty sure that my ball had crossed where I was sort of dropping it. It’s so hard, right, because there was no TV evidence. I was adamant. But I think, again, he was just trying to make sure that I was going to do the right thing.

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“If anything, I was being conservative with it. I think at the end of the day we’re all trying to protect ourselves, protect the field, as well. I wouldn’t say it was needless. I think he was just trying to make sure that what happened was the right thing.”

McIlroy added that he believes he’s one of the most conscientious golfers on tour when it comes to the rules.

“If I feel like I’ve done something wrong, it’ll play on my conscience for the rest of the tournament. I’m a big believer in karma, and if you do something wrong, I feel like it’s going to come around and bite you at some point.

“I obviously don’t try to do anything wrong out there, and play by the rules and do the right thing. I feel like I obviously did that those two drops.”

McIlroy is currently tied for the lead with Xander Schauffele at seven-under. He, Spieth and Hovland will tee it up again in the second round.