Rory McIlroy insisted last night that he had never tried to "get away with anything" regarding the Rules of Golf after becoming embroiled in the Patrick Reed embedded-ball fiasco in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
Reed cruised to his ninth PGA Tour victory when he closed with a four-under 68 to triumph by five shots from Tony Finau, Henrik Norlander, Ryan Palmer, Xander Schauffele and Viktor Hovland on 14-under par.
But the Texan's win was overshadowed by a rules incident on Saturday when he was widely panned on social media over a free drop he received on the 10th hole of his third round for an embedded ball after his approach wound up well left of the green in heavy rough.
Replays of the shot showed the ball had bounced, though Reed was told when he asked a marshal that she didn't see the ball bounce.
None of Reed's playing partners or their caddies saw the ball bounce either and so Reed told them he would check if it was embedded.
After marking and removing his ball and putting it to one side, examining the hole it left with his finger, he called a rules official who confirmed he was allowed a free drop for an embedded ball, and went on to share the 54-hole lead with Mexico's Carlos Ortiz.
The full exchange as Patrick Reed takes embedded ball relief on No. 10. pic.twitter.com/gSPH6PrAoW— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 30, 2021
It later emerged via Golf Channel that McIlroy had taken a similar drop in almost identical circumstances on the 18th the same day, though he merely alerted his playing partner Rory Sabbatini that he intended to take embedded ball relief and did not call for an official.
After being slaughtered on social media for his drop, Reed jumped to highlight the incident when he tweeted in capitals: “RORY MCILROY @McIlroyRory DID THE SAME THING TODAY ON HOLE 18! AND DIDN'T EVEN CALL A RULES OFFICIAL OVER TO DEEM THE BALL EMBEDDED. END OF STORY."
The PGA Tour quickly moved to issue a statement early on Sunday declaring that both players had done things by the book, even though video showed that both Reed's and McIlroy's shots bounced on impact before later becoming embedded.
Rory McIlroy takes embedded ball relief on No. 18 during Round 3. pic.twitter.com/9D4HH4Gv5g— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 31, 2021
"John Mutch, Ken Tackett and Gary Young have reviewed the Rory McIlroy videos from No. 18 yesterday and determined that it was virtually the same situation that Patrick Reed faced on No. 10 during the third round," the statement read.
"It was reasonable for both players to conclude - based on the fact that they did not see the ball land but given the lie of the ball in soft course conditions - that they proceed as the Rule allows for a potential embedded ball.
"They marked, lifted and assessed the situation to determine if the ball was embedded. Patrick went one step further and called in a Rules Official to be sure his assessment would not be questioned (although this step is not required). Both players took proper relief under the Rule 16/3. The Committee is comfortable with how both players proceeded given the fact that they used the evidence they had at the time."
McIlroy, who ended up finishing eight shots behind Reed in a tie for 16th after a poor back nine resulted in a closing 73, was asked about the statement and his drop following his final round.
"I came in here yesterday after hearing about what Patrick had been through on the 10th hole sort of giving him the benefit of the doubt because I just went through a similar thing on 18 yesterday," McIlroy said after Sunday's final round.
"I hit a five‑iron for a layup. It sort of got caught up in the wind and ballooned and it landed beside three volunteers, but they didn't see it.
"The three guys were searching for the ball as I got there. So I basically did the same thing that Patrick did. I said, 'Well, I'm going to just check if it's embedded.' I just saw the video of it, because none of them saw it bounce, so I checked if it was embedded and it was in its pitch mark. I took the ball out and there was a lump of mud on it and it had broken the surface. I said to Rory Sabbatini, 'Look, this ball's embedded, and he said no problem at all. He had one on 15 that he had an embedded. I took relief and proceeded on.
"As everyone knows, if a ball bounces up and comes to rest in a pitch mark or in a lie that's not the pitch mark that it made, then of course it's very hard for it to be embedded, but I feel the way my ball was definitely in its own pitch mark, it had to be, and that was why I was so confident to take relief and do what I did."
The controversy surrounding Reed goes back to the 2019 Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, when he took two practice swings in a bunker, scraping sand away and improving his lie on both occasions.
His actions were caught on camera and while he protested that camera angles were deceptive, he was docked two shots on that occasion.
McIlroy, on the other hand, has been above reproach for his handling of the rules throughout his career and he denied ever trying to take advantage of them.
"Patrick brought a rules official in and I didn't," McIlroy said last night. "I don't think I've ever had an issue before with the rules, or if I have, it's been a long time.
"I remember my first trip at Augusta with the bunker on 18 back in '09 [when he was accused of kicking the sand in anger after leaving a bunker shot in the sand, he assured Augusta officials he had merely vigorously smoothed footprints and escaped penalty].
"But look, like everyone out here, it's the worst thing in golf to be labelled as someone that tries to get away with something or labelled a cheater and that's just not how you want your reputation to be. Even going back to the PGA Championship at Harding Park last year, I got relief because someone stepped on my ball, but I didn't feel right because the lie that I had was way worse than the lie that I would have been given. So I gave myself a worse lie to just try to be fair to the field and the tournament in general.
"I've never tried to get away with anything out here. Our game is about integrity, and it's about doing the right thing. I always try to do the right thing, and hopefully people see that. I feel like I have a reputation of that.
"Yesterday was one of those things that I guess Patrick and I both went on the information that we had and made those determinations. I guess people can jump to conclusions, but at the same time, we were well within our rights to do what we did. My ball was certainly plugged on 18, Patrick felt his ball was plugged on 10, and we proceeded on from there."
Whatever about McIlroy's reputation, Reed's is in tatters after joint runner-up Xander Schauffele insisted that the Texan was "protected by the Tour."
"I mean, he did everything by the book according to the official, and everyone stood by there," said Schauffele, who added that he hadn't watched replays of the incident but heard players talking about it.
"Obviously the talk amongst the boys isn't great, I guess, but he's protected by the (PGA) Tour and that's all that matters, I guess."
More damning was Schauffele's response when asked what he'd do in a similar situation to Reed's.
"If my ball's embedded, I usually will wait and call someone and kind of wait until everyone's on the same page, wait to look at video," he added. "So I try to avoid situations like that just for that reason."