What is Northern Irish for "what a stupid I am"? Try, "I'm brain-dead".
Those were Rory McIlroy's words to Luke Donald after the latter pulled him up for a two-shot penalty which cost him the halfway lead at the Abu Dhabi Championship yesterday.
Of course, the penalty was harsh. But then, golf is littered with hard/daft justice stories and had been way before Roberto De Vicenzo uttered his immortal mea culpa when signing for the wrong score at the 1968 Masters and thus seeing the Green Jacket head off to a rival wardrobe. The consolation for McIlroy was that his unwitting error on the ninth, when clearing the sand in front of his ball, came in the second round instead of the fourth. His job now will be to make Friday's mistake an irrelevance come Sunday evening.
In truth, the young Ulsterman did well to battle back and post the same two-round total (five under) as his playing partner, Tiger Woods. That is no mean feat, seeing as Woods has looked ominously like his old self these first two days. Indeed, Donald looked on at the world No 25 and all but shuddered. "His control of the golf ball yesterday was as good as I've seen it," said the world No 1. "It was a daunting sight for us."
Donald is four further back, six off the pace set by the impressive young Dane Thorbjorn Olesen. He is far from out of it, but will need to launch a birdie-filled charge today, which may be as easily done as said now that he is away from the Tiger circus. To McIlroy, however, the fact he will again be playing with the 14-time major-winner was another factor of solace to take from his "moment of carelessness". "I like the buzz playing with Tiger," said McIlroy, who had never before partnered him in an official event.
Yet McIlroy wouldn't be human, and certainly not a golfer, if the episode on the 456-yard par four did not replay on his mind last night. Pin high on the fringe to the left, McIlroy was six feet off the green thinking he could chip it in. Except for all that damn yellow stuff in his path. "There was so much sand in my line, I didn't even think about it," said McIlroy, who claimed to know the rule. Donald's version of events was slightly different.
"I saw Rory go down to sweep it away and it was too late, I didn't have time to stop him," said Donald. "I said, 'Erm, sorry, you can't do that, Rory.' He thought he was not in the wrong at first. I said check, but I'm sure you can only move sand on the green. It's not a nice feeling seeing someone inadvertently break the rules, but I'm sure if I hadn't done something, a viewer would have picked up on it."
As supporting evidence for that claim, Donald need only refer back 12 months where at this event Padraig Harrington was disqualified when leading after an armchair vigilante made contact with the European Tour when spotting the Irishman unknowingly nudge the ball three dimples forward. The Royal and Ancient changed the rules in the wake of that particular infraction and one can only pray it does so again. Two shots is simply too harsh a punishment. "We were talking about it afterwards and that's the same penalty as hitting the ball out of bounds," said McIlroy. "But hey, the rules are the rules." Said Donald: "The rule's OK, but two shots is stiff. One would be fair."
The 22-year-old readily accepted culpability, telling Donald on the way to the next tee: "Luke, please don't feel awkward, it's not your fault. It's my mistake for being brain-dead." From there, he re-engaged cranium, birdied the 10th, holed a monster putt for a bogey on the 11th and birdied the 12th and 14th.
"I don't think I've had so many ups and downs in a round of golf before," he said, also reflecting on his double-bogey on the third. "I played great golf coming in and a level-par 72 is a decent score, considering what went on. You know, a couple of years ago I might have let an incident like that [on the 9th] affect me." "Rory hung in there well," acknowledged Woods.
In many ways, the maturing of McIlroy is as fascinating as the resurgence of Woods, who has given himself a tantalising opportunity to win back-to-back titles and re-enter the top 10.
Ahead of Woods and McIlroy, and the other five in a tie for fourth, stands Olesen, with another Northern Irishman, Gareth Maybin, in a share of second with Matteo Manassero. The Italian added yet more substance to a huge reputation with a 65, the best score of the week thus far by two strokes. "It's the best I've played in maybe six months," he said. Six months constitutes a long time when you're 18.
Top Of Leader Board
GB & Irl unless stated
17: under T Olesen (Den)
16: under M Manassero (It), G Maybin
15: under R Finch, JB Gonnet (Fr), R Karlsson (Swe), P Lawrie, R McIlroy, R Rock, T Woods (US)
14: under S Garcia (Sp), P Harrington, J M Lara (Sp), R Ramsay, C Schwartzel (SA)