News & Opinion

$100,000 question: Why penalize Li?

KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia – As the European Tour made the trek across the desert from Dubai to the west coast of Saudi Arabia for the inaugural Saudi International, the main topic of conversation Monday was Mike Burrow.

Burrow, who caddies for China’s Haotong Li, took a bit too long behind Li’s ball on the 18th hole Sunday in the final round at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, costing his player a two-shot penalty and nearly $100,000.

Under Rule 10.2b(4), which took effect Jan. 1, 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.”

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Haotong Li endures a costly penalty on the final hole in Dubai.

Burrow clearly positioned himself behind Li as the golfer was squatting down and looking at the line of the putt at Emirates Golf Club. Li then stood as Burrow took one last look to confirm what he saw and then moved away as Li was taking his stance.

Burrow didn’t move away quickly enough, according to the European Tour’s rules officials onsite, and Li was penalized two shots. It turned a would-be birdie into a bogey, and his apparent 71 became a 73, dropping Li into a tie for 12th. It cost Li, the defending champion, big money, and Burrow’s fee for the week no doubt dropped as well.

By the pure letter of the rule, a violation may have occurred, but interestingly another part of the rule states, “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.”

Because Burrow didn’t seem to communicate anything to Li just before Li took a stance or while he was taking his stance, a prudent person could determine that the slow movement by Burrow could fall under this limited exception because the caddie provided no guidance to his player at the crucial point of taking his stance.

Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive, is having the same type of heartburn that struck many players and caddies over the decision. In a statement issued by the tour on Monday afternoon, Pelley said:

“There has been much discussion and comment over the past 24 hours on the two-shot penalty given to Li Haotong for his breach of Rule 10.2b (4) on the 18th green of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

“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.

“In an era where we are striving to improve all aspects of golf, we need to be careful and find the proper balance between maintaining the integrity of the game and promoting its global appeal.

“I have spoken personally to R&A Chief Executive Martin Slumbers to voice my opposition to the fact there is no discretion available to our referees in relation to this ruling, and I will be making additional representation to the R&A in the near future to discuss the matter further.”

For his part, Slumbers issued a statement later in the day.

“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.”

To further cloud the issue, the rules include an interpretation that states:

“There is no set procedure for determining when a player has begun to take a stance since each player has his or her own set-up routine. However, if a player has his or her feet or body close to a position where useful guidance on aiming at the intended target could be given, it should be decided that the player has begun to take his or her stance.

“Examples of when a player has begun to take a stance include when:

  • The player is standing beside the ball but facing the hole with his or her club behind the ball, and then starts to turn his or her body to face the ball.
  • After standing behind the ball to determine the target line, the player takes a step forward and then starts to turn his or her body and puts a foot in place for the stroke.”

Less than a month ago, what Burrow did would have not have been an issue. Now, it’s unclear whether a rules violation actually occurred. The rule is ambiguous on its face, which is what’s wrong with it.
For players and caddies, uncertainty abounds on what actions they can and cannot take. Is this what the USGA and R&A, golf’s governing bodies, were seeking?

Many players commiserated with Burrow during the flight across Saudi Arabia, as did caddies.

Golf tried to modernize its rules on Jan. 1, but instead the game has taken a step backwards.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli