KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – For a few moments, Rory McIlroy's hopes of a big day at the PGA Championship were up a tree.
McIlroy's tee shot on the par-4 third hole Saturday became lodged in a thick tree branch not far from the green, but after a brief and fruitless search for the ball, he was told by someone from a TV crew that it was actually sitting just above him. Instead of having to tee off again because of a lost ball, McIlroy took a drop and a one-stroke penalty — and got up and down for par.
He ended up with five birdies in nine holes, taking a share of the lead before the third round was halted because of rain — but it was that bizarre par that had everyone at Kiawah Island talking.
"I think that's the first time a ball has ever got stuck up a tree on me," McIlroy said. "Hopefully, it doesn't happen again."
Not since Sergio Garcia went toe-to-toe with an oak at Medinah in 1999 has a tree become this big a part of PGA Championship proceedings. After two straight birdies to start the round, McIlroy was poised to make an early run when he came to No. 3, which had been shortened 74 yards Saturday to an enticing 317.
McIlroy's drive didn't reach the green, however. Instead, it was somehow caught in what looked like a rotted out section of a branch, on a tree in the middle of the fairway that guards the front of the green.
"I knew the line of the ball was right on the tree," McIlroy said. "So, you know, I was just like, 'Well, if it hit the tree, I'm sure it's just somewhere around here in these long grass things or in the wood chip or whatever.'"
McIlroy looked around near the base of the tree and found nothing. If the ball was lost, he would be penalized a stroke — and have to return to the tee box to hit again. But the ball wasn't lost. In fact, it was clearly visible on the television broadcast, nestled in the tree, about seven feet off the ground.
"We'd been looking for it for maybe about three minutes, and then one of the guys that was working for the TV came over and said, 'You know, it's actually stuck in the tree,'" McIlroy said.
It's not unusual for players to be penalized because of violations caught by television viewers — but in this case, the live broadcast worked to McIlroy's advantage.
"I'm like, 'How can it be stuck in this thing?'" McIlroy said. "But it had wedged itself in between the tree bark and the actual tree."
Faced with one of the more unplayable lies of his career, McIlroy took a penalty stroke and a drop, reached the green with his next shot and calmly made a 6-foot putt to save par.
Last year at this event, McIlroy tried to hit his ball as it rested against a tree root. He ended up injuring his right wrist.
Thirteen years ago at Medinah, a 19-year-old Garcia was involved in a memorable duel with Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship. He didn't win that tournament, but one shot in particular lives on. After his tee shot on the 16th hole sailed wide right and landed behind an oak tree, settling behind a knot of roots, Garcia grabbed a 6-iron, closed his eyes and swung.
He then sprinted out to the fairway and jumped like a hurdler at the top of a hill so he could watch as the ball landed on the green.
For McIlroy, there were no such theatrics — just relief. What began as an awful break may end up being a turning point in his weekend.
"I'm just glad I didn't try and play that ball from the tree," he said with a laugh. "When you're an aggressive player, you're going to have days where it doesn't go so well and then you're also going to have days like this."