McIlroy takes rough with smooth for lucky escape

Young gun is buoyed by text from Sir Alex after ducking disqualification in Masters sand storm
Click to follow
The Independent Online

They might be a lowly triumvirate in terms of profile outside of their sport, but Angel Cabrera, Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell have lit up this golfing heaven this week. It is certainly hard to envisage anyone else donning green in the Butler Cabin this evening.

That includes Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, both on four under and both bearing their frustrations after a day in which their talent was supposed to rise to the top. They are seven strokes off Cabrera and Perry and five off third-placed Campbell. Perhaps Cabrera has the biggest shout at glory over the Americans today. The Argentinian already has a US Open to his increasingly imposing name and two years ago at Oakmont he revealed a champion's nerve.

The British challenge can again be described as encouraging; but little more. Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood fired 68s to scrape into the top 10 alongside Woods. The void in the British trophy cabinet will almost certainly be extended to 38 majors.

Alas, the Paddy Slam is also gone. Padraig Harrington shot a 73, which included a nine at the par-five second, and is one under. Rory McIlroy, his fellow Irishman, is one shot further back and will have to harbour another dream rather than becoming the first rookie Masters winner in 30 years. Yet golfing folklore already has it that the teenager's tournament could have been immeasurably worse.

Inspired by a "never give up" text from his hero, Sir Alex Ferguson, McIlroy showed the fighting qualities yesterday that will surely assist in his continued graduation to the world's elite. A 71 was a gutsy comeback after the ghastly experience of the previous evening when the teenager feared he was about to be disqualified.

It has been far from a disastrous week. He has discovered some of the unique Augusta nuances. And there has been another lesson, too: keep one's feet to oneself. "I'm not making that mistake again and putting myself in that position," he said before trying to play down the affair. "I'm definitely surprised by the fuss, no big deal." It was a brave attempt, but ultimately doomed. One issue persisted to fill the Georgia air yesterday: did Rory kick the sand? Or did he simply smooth it with his foot?

It was 8.40pm on Friday when the bushy-haired 19-year-old finally agreed to return to the course after initially saying there was no need. When the phone rang again, he was told "it was in my interests" to meet with the rules committee to explain his actions in the bunker beside the 18th green. However vehemently he believed in his innocence, McIlroy was on the brink.

Bizarrely, the incident had occurred almost five hours before the hearing. McIlroy had failed to extricate his ball from the trap and it was then that he swung his right foot, raising sand in the process and setting into motion a controversy that was to rage into the night and, perhaps, beyond. The officials' procrastination clearly assisted in deepening the intrigue, although maybe their dilly-dallying as they reviewed the video evidence was born of something other than incompetence. The regulation that deals with "testing the sand" is ambiguous to the point of being mind-bogglingly confusing. As the incredibly complicated statement from the referee's office confirmed. Rule 13-4 was quoted and, to be honest, not many were the wiser.

In all, it was a 10-minute hearing, which McIlroy went into on his own. He maintained that he had "smoothed" rather than "kicked" the sand and that this was "something I always do". Having been in the process of dropping five shots in the last three holes, McIlroy denied it was a tantrum. But he did admit to "smoothing the sand vigorously". "I knew in my own mind I hadn't done anything wrong, and that's why I didn't come back the first time," he said. Yet the mood in the house he and his family are renting was apparently bleak when the second call came.

Understandably so. Golf referees are notoriously strict when it comes to perceived transgressions. Yesterday, there was the suggestion in some quarters that McIlroy had been a lucky boy, yet this was outweighed by the revulsion to a rule that is as stupid and as vague as they come. But then there is more than one of them, isn't there?

This realisation of the daftness of it all would undoubtedly help protect McIlroy's reputation from the crassest of the whisperers, many of whom had not yet seen the origin of this sand storm. Only the BBC showed replays and they were just about inconclusive enough to take McIlroy's word for it. Whether sand can fly into the air, as it did, while being smoothed is a moot point. The rule-makers need to apply hasty clarification. It would be a shame if McIlroy's image as the most refreshing golfer to hit the game in many a year was in any way compromised.

Still, McIlroy did have plenty in the crowd willing him on, as well as a certain sporting icon back in England. The Manchester United fan was delighted to have received a text from Sir Alex. "Having watched us play, you know we never, ever give up," it read.