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Rory McIlroy holds share of lead at Players Championship despite controversy

Two rules issues involving drops dogged McIlroy, who nonetheless managed to finish the Players' first day in a tie for the lead.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MARCH 14: PGA golfer Rory McIlroy talks with Jordan Spieth on where his tee shot on the 18th hole went in the water during The Players Championship on March 14, 2024, at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MARCH 14: PGA golfer Rory McIlroy talks with Jordan Spieth on where his tee shot on the 18th hole went in the water during The Players Championship on March 14, 2024, at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Say this for Rory McIlroy: The man knows how to play through distractions. After two years of serving as the point man for the PGA Tour's fight against LIV Golf — and playing some of the best golf of his career during that time — he found himself in a little rules controversy of his own Thursday at The Players Championship. Even so, he managed to hold a share of the lead at the end of the tournament's first day.

McIlroy, playing with Viktor Hovland and Jordan Spieth, teed off on the 10th hole, and played nearly flawless golf for eight holes. He was 6-under heading to the 18th, and there his troubles began. McIlroy's tee shot on the par-4 18th swung well to the left and ended up in the water.

The Rules of Golf allow a player to drop where the ball crossed over from the land to the water. However, the Rules of Golf also place the burden on the player (and their partners) to determine where exactly the ball left the land behind. Given that professional golfers' tee shots are often many dozens of feet in the air, hundreds of yards downrange and traveling well over 100 miles per hour, spotting the exact location a ball crossed over to water is a difficult task.

McIlroy targeted a spot about 300 yards from the pin, but Spieth appeared to express some doubt about whether that was correct. But Hovland's caddy agreed with McIlroy, so he played from there and escaped with a bogey.

Seven holes later, however, matters took a turn. McIlroy again put a shot into the water, and again picked out a spot where he thought it had crossed off the land. But this time, Spieth and Hovland weren't quite so sure. After a lengthy discussion, which was captured by cameras and broadcast, the three eventually decided that McIlroy had the correct spot. He would go on to double-bogey the hole, but the discussion was nirvana for golf process nerds:

McIlroy, for his part, defended his own reputation and acknowledged Spieth's concerns.

"I think Jordan was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing," he 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."

McIlroy continued to plead his case. "If anything, I was being conservative with it," he added. "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."

Neither Spieth nor Hovland spoke with the media afterward, which might mean something or might mean nothing at all.

"If I feel like I've done something wrong, it'll play on my conscience for the rest of the tournament," McIlroy said. "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 finished the day at -7, tied with Xander Schauffele and Wyndham Clark for the lead. But, as is often the case with McIlroy, the number only told the tiniest part of the story.