Rory McIlroy used a phrase familiar to Irish soccer fans of a certain vintage to describe his feelings after finishing joint second and one shot off the pace at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Sunday.
The former world number one spoke of a “moral victory” after a bizarre 24 hours in his first tournament of the New Year as his Middle East curse came back to haunt him.
The phrase was a staple for Irish soccer fans in the 1970s and early ‘80s when their team went close but not close enough in various World Cup and European Championship qualifying campaigns. McIlroy clearly knew how they felt after he was caught up in his own desert storm on Saturday and Sunday.
Two years ago, McIlroy was penalized for brushing sand away from the path of his ball and the two shot penalty that ensued cost him the 2012 championship.
Lightning struck twice on Saturday when the Ulsterman was again hit with a penalty, this time for dropping his ball in the wrong place on the second hole during his third round.
As was the case two years ago, McIlroy lost the 2014 tournament by just a shot, finishing joint second with Phil Mickelson behind the Spaniard Pablo Larrazabal.
On Saturday, he described the rule as “stupid.” On Sunday, he again struggled to contain his frustrations as the reality of the exact cost of that two shot forfeit, after losing to Larrazabal by just one shot, began to hit home.
After a final round 68, watched by fiancée Caroline Wozniacki, McIlroy was left to rue the two shot punishment, even though it could have been a lot worse of Ricardo Gonzalez’s caddie Dave Renwick hadn’t alerted him to the misdemeanor before he signed his card.
Renwick had kept his mouth shut for the 16 holes that followed McIlroy’s wrong drop on a spectator path for fear it would distract the Irishman. Had he signed for the wrong card, McIlroy would have been disqualified immediately.
Instead he went to collect a near $300,000 for sharing second prize with Mickelson on 13 under, one shot behind the surprise winner.
But still McIlroy insisted, “It’s hard to take because I’ve played the tournament in one shot less than everyone else — again! — and still not finished up with the trophy. I can count it as a moral victory, but that doesn’t mean very much
“I can’t describe how frustrated I am. I feel I should be standing here on 15 under with a victory to start the year. Instead I’m a bit deflated, although you have to give Pablo credit for playing great golf down the closing stretch.
“But I’ve played well the whole week, and hit the ball great from tee to green. In that sense it’s a very positive start to the season so I’m not going to let one little negative ruin that.
“I feel good about my game and feel like I’m back to the place that I want to be. I’m driving the ball well, hitting the ball solid and giving myself plenty of chances for birdies. If I can keep doing that, the wins will come.”
Saturday was just as stormy for McIlroy after he was told of a possible infraction by Renwick before he signed for a 68 and an 11 under par total at the end of his third round.
Renwick, a European Tour veteran, felt McIlroy had not taken full relief from a spectator crossing on the second hole. Video evidence proved inconclusive so McIlroy and the tour’s top referee John Paramor headed back to the par five to examine the area in question.
Paramor ruled that McIlroy’s left foot had been touching the white line denoting the crossing and a two-shot penalty was applied.
McIlroy blasted, “There are a lot of stupid rules in golf and this is one of them. I have better things to think about than keeping up to date with the rules.
“I hit my second shot on the second into the left rough but on the spectator crosswalk. I took a drop and played my shot but I did not notice my left foot was still on the line and you need to take full relief.
“We went out to see it again and see my divot and it was clear I could not have played my shot with my feet anywhere else. It’s unfortunate. If anything it was a disadvantage because I dropped it in a bad lie and did not make birdie. I didn’t gain any advantage.
“The thing is, if I had of realized it at the time, I would have said, ‘Okay I need to drop it again.’ It’s a bad lie anyway; drop it again, might get a better one. It’s disappointing. I don’t feel like I gained any sort of advantage by my foot being on a bit of white paint.”
Bizarrely, it’s not the first time a rules infringement has cost McIlroy victory in Abu Dhabi.
In 2012 he lost the tournament to England’s Robert Rock by just one shot after he was also hit with a two shot penalty, that time for brushing sand away from the front of his ball, but off the green, during his second round.
At least McIlroy began 2014 in better shape that he started his previous campaign in the same event 12 months earlier when his introduction to new Nike clubs was marked by a failure to make the cut.
He will now skip this week’s Masters event in Qatar before returning to action for the Desert Classic in Dubai.
The history behind “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”