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Pro golfer loses $100,000 on questionable violation of one of golf’s new rules

Haotong Li is the first high-profile violation of one of golf’s new rules, which were designed to make the game simpler and faster but had the opposite effect here.

The new rules of golf that took effect on Jan. 1, 2019 were supposed to make the game simpler and faster. Through the first month of the year, we’ve seen pros at the highest level experiment with putting with the pin in, struggle to drop from knee height, and move loose impediments around in bunkers. The rules, in general, are progressive and not meant to get caught up in ticky-tack controversies and violations that give a player no real advantage but yield penalties that make golf a laughing stock.

One of the new rules designed to improve pace of play is that a caddie cannot “line up” his player. This is a common occurrence in pro game, especially on the LPGA. The caddie will stand behind a player and check her/his aim. This year, if your caddie is behind you like that, you need to step off and re-address the ball. It gets dicey up on the green, where a caddie might be reading the break from behind his player. Here is the official language of the new rule:

Under Rule 10.2b(4):

  • The previous prohibition is extended so that, once the player begins taking a stance for the stroke, and until the stroke is made, the player’s caddie must not deliberately stand on or close to an extension of the line of play behind the ball for any reason.
  • There is no penalty if the caddie accidentally stands on or close to an extension of the line of play behind the ball, rather than in trying to help in lining up.

And here’s Haotong Li making what we thought was a birdie putt on the 18th hole of the Dubai Desert Classic to finish in third.

That does not look like much. It looks like nothing. Li’s caddie strolls off and he steps into the putt and drains it to finish a solid week defending his title in Dubai.

Buuuuut, later in the day, European Tour officials confirmed that Li took a two-stroke penalty in violation of that new rule. There was no advantage gained here and it had no impact on the putt going in the hole.

The two-stroke change dropped Li from a third-place finish to a tie for 12th-place and cost him the equivalent of about $100,000. While there have been newsworthy drops and jokes about putting with the pin still in the cup, this is the first real controversy with the new rules. And it’s an old refrain. We’re caught up in some sort of irrelevant ticky-tack interpretation that doesn’t matter, except on the scorecard and in the bank account of Li.

The reaction from some Euro Tour players and golf analysts was mostly disappointment bordering on anger.

Li has almost $8 million in career earnings and is just getting started in what should be a lucrative, long, and successful professional career as China’s first great golfer. The $100k change is not some massive blow, but it provides a measurable objective number that corresponds with what feels like a totally inconsequential violation.

The new rules were supposed to help get us beyond this kind of drama. We need less judgment in the hands of the ruling bodies, who continue to forgo common sense when penalizing players. Li took the hit this time and it’s a January event with lower stakes. But if this is the start of a year of guessing whether a caddie walked away soon enough, it’s going to be another long, miserable season of rules debates that get lost in a forest of minutiae and end up with nonsensical outcomes.

Update: The backlash to the ruling forced the European Tour to make a Monday morning statement on the matter. The European Tour really put it on the R&A, the organization responsible for writing and maintaining the rulebook, saying they were handicapped by the letter of the law and disagreed with the “unfair” outcome.

‘Let me state initially that, under the new Rules of Golf issued on January 1, 2019, the decision made by our referees was correct, under the strict wording of the rules. It is my strong belief, however, that the fact there is no discretion available to our referees when implementing rulings such as this is wrong and should be addressed immediately.

‘Everyone I have spoken to about this believes, as I do, that there was no malice or intent from Li Haotong, nor did he gain any advantage from his, or his caddie’s split-second actions. Therefore the subsequent two shot penalty, which moved him from T3 in the tournament to T12, was grossly unfair in my opinion.

This prompted R&A chief Martin Slumbers, aka Marty Sleeps, to issue a response to Pelley’s statement. And now we have a little Monday morning pissing match between two of the game’s organizing bodies. It could be the start of several this year, especially as questions of distance and a ball rollback continue to percolate.

“We have reviewed the Li Haotong ruling made by the European Tour referees and agree that it was correct. There has been some misunderstanding of the new Rule and I would point out that it is designed to prevent any opportunity for the caddie to stand behind the player as he begins to take his stance. Whether the player intends to be lined up is not the issue. We appreciate that it was a very unfortunate situation yesterday and I completely understand Keith Pelley’s concerns when a Rules incident occurs at such a key stage of a European Tour event but there is no discretionary element to the Rule precisely so that it is easier to understand and can be applied consistently.

“We are continuing to monitor the impact of the new Rules but I made it clear to Keith that our focus is very much on maintaining the integrity of the Rules for all golfers worldwide.”