JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – It wasn’t the smartest decision. It wasn’t the most cautious decision. And as we witnessed in the aftermath, it certainly wasn’t the right decision.
That’s exactly why we should applaud the hubris that Rory McIlroy displayed on Thursday.
With his ball resting behind a root on the left side of Atlanta Athletic Club's third hole, McIlroy faced a quandary that had no positive potential outcomes. He could take a drop, suffer a penalty stroke and extricate himself from danger. He could cautiously punch it back into the fairway. Or he could ignore the lingering hazard and take a mighty lash at the ball.
He chose door No. 3. How cool is that?
The 22-year-old reigning U.S. Open champion will be criticized and scolded should the result hinder his short-term progress. He barely advanced the ball, but that wasn't the worst part. The impact of his club striking the root forced him to injure his right wrist so badly that he was in physical pain throughout the remainder of the round and on multiple occasions pondered withdrawing from the tournament.
Instead, he gritted his teeth and not only toughed it out, but posted an even-par 70 that left him in a share of 24th place through one round at the 93rd PGA Championship.
This is the type of audacity we should encourage from the world’s best golfers. It was hardly a career-defining shot; no swing in the early part of an opening round ever is. It was, however, the type of shot that defines a player’s character.
So, too, was his choice to finish out the round. McIlroy didn’t come to this conclusion independently, of course – he consulted with trainers on multiple holes, iced his wrist and had it taped up to prevent further damage – but the resolution was all his own.
“They said, ‘It's your decision; if you want to play on and you feel comfortable doing that, but if not, there's no point in risking it,’” he later said. “It's the last major of the year. I've got, what, six or seven months to the Masters. So I might as well try and play through the pain and get it over and done with.
Those who find fault with McIlroy’s plan to hit the shot and continue playing are the same people who enjoy laying up and lag putting. They’re the same ones who still think Tiger Woods should have stayed home three years ago at Torrey Pines rather than playing through multiple leg injuries and winning one of the most dramatic tournaments in the game’s history.
Elite players aren’t just better than their peers because they hit the golf ball farther or putt it smoother. What separates these guys from the game’s hoi polloi is their propensity to attempt the extraordinary.
Think about it: If Arnold Palmer had found himself in a similar position 50 years ago, would he have chosen the safe route or hitched up his slacks, swung hard and hoped for the best? You’d better believe it was the latter – and it’s honorable that McIlroy made the same call.
“It was dangerous,” he explained. “I thought if I could make contact with the ball and just let the club go, I might get away with it. You know, in hindsight it would have been better to chip out sideways.”
Nobody is arguing that point in the wake of McIlroy’s injury. After shaking hands – lefthanded, of course – with playing partners Darren Clarke and Charl Schwartzel on the final green, then signing his scorecard and briefly speaking with reporters, he was whisked away to a nearby medical facility to have an MRI on his wrist, where he was found to have a strained tendon.
If there is either potential of risking further injury or he simply can’t play through the pain, McIlroy will likely withdraw from the tournament prior to his 8:35 a.m. tee time on Friday morning. The swing that produced such pain will be reviewed and replayed for weeks – if not months – as his decision to hit the shot is second-guessed from here to Holywood.
It shouldn’t be, though. This decision should be celebrated for its raw determination and guile. He should be cheered for trying a shot with his best intentions at heart, potential injury be damned.
After all, boring players take precautions. Safe players. Maybe even fearful players.
Superstars try things that may not always be smart or safe or right, but are special. What McIlroy attempted on Thursday qualifies as all of the above. If he can not only continue competing, but contends with a sore wrist this weekend, we’ll remember his performance not because of his ball-striking or putting, but because he showed guts.
And that’s exactly what separates him from so many other players.