Rory McIlroy dismisses drop debate as he shares Players lead

Rory McIlroy insisted his conscience was clear after shrugging off a lengthy debate over a penalty drop to claim a share of the clubhouse lead on day one of the Players Championship.

Having started from the 10th at TPC Sawgrass, McIlroy looked set to lead outright when he covered his first 15 holes in eight under par, only to pull his tee shot on the seventh into the water.

It was not clear where the ball had bounced before entering the hazard and that led to a near 10-minute discussion with playing partners Viktor Hovland and Jordan Spieth, who appeared to question the location of McIlroy’s drop.

McIlroy eventually hit his third shot short of the green and ran up a double-bogey six, but made his 10th birdie of the day on the par-five ninth to match the seven-under-par 65 of Olympic champion Xander Schauffele.

“I think Jordan (Spieth) was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing,” McIlroy told reporters after the round.

“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.

“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 was adamant, but I guess I started to doubt myself a little bit. I was like, ‘OK, did I actually see what I thought I saw?’. It is a bit of a (television) blind spot. I think the best view was from the tee, which was the view that we had.”

Hovland and Spieth chose not to speak to the media after rounds of 73 and 74 respectively, but McIlroy – who faced a similar drop situation on the 18th – was asked if everyone in the group had been comfortable with the outcome.

“I think so, yeah,” McIlroy added. “I’m comfortable. I think that’s the most important thing.

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy points to near where his shot went into the water on the 18th hole during the first round of the Players Championship (Lynne Sladky/AP)

“I feel like I’m one of the most conscientious golfers out here, so 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.”

Late in the day, US Open champion Wyndham Clark birdied the 15th, 16th and 17th to make it a three-way tie for the lead, while England’s Matt Fitzpatrick covered his last 12 holes in seven under to finish a shot off the pace alongside Canada’s Nick Taylor.

“I’m just trying to stay patient all week,” Fitzpatrick, who has missed the cut in two of his last starts told Sky Sports. “The form’s not been quite how I want it and I think it’s important to build on something with Augusta coming up.

World number one and defending champion Scottie Scheffler bogeyed his first hole of the day but responded with six birdies to record a five-under-par 67.

New Zealand’s Ryan Fox had earlier made history as the first man to follow an eagle on the 16th with a hole-in-one on the 17th.

Fox holed from inside three feet for eagle on the 16th and then saw his tee shot on the next pitch around 10 feet beyond the pin and spin back into the hole.

Fox eventually carded a three-under-par 69, while England’s Tommy Fleetwood returned a 70 which included five birdies and a triple-bogey on the seventh.