News & Opinion

USGA, R&A bend a bit on ‘alignment rule’

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Did anyone really expect that when the USGA and R&A decided to substantially overhaul the Rules of Golf that the finished product wouldn’t truly be finished?

Of course not.

On Jan. 1, the new rules became the law of the golf land, but in only a month, three changes have gotten most of the headlines: the mandatory knee-high drop; the option to leave the flagstick in the hole when putting; and the caddie standing behind a player when setting up before a stroke.

While the knee-high drop and the flagstick option have been more the butt of jokes by players and media alike, Rule 10.2b(4), known as the “alignment rule,” has troubled players.

China’s Haotong Li received a two-stroke penalty in Dubai two weeks ago on the European Tour when his caddie didn’t move quickly enough from behind Li when he was taking a stance on the putting green.

Denny McCarthy incurred a rules confrontation in Phoenix last week when his caddie stood near McCarthy, even though McCarthy wasn’t getting ready to take a swing or even in a stance to do so.

McCarthy was penalized, but it was overturned two days later, when the USGA weighed in before the final round in Phoenix and agreed to clarify the rule.

After the Li ruling, Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive, asked for some relief from the R&A. He wanted tour officials to have discretion with Rule 10.2b(4). Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, declined, saying that there is no discretionary element in the rule.

That was just a little more than a week ago. Now, after the McCarthy reversal, the USGA and R&A decided to offer a clarification of Rule 10.2b(4) that looks decidedly like rules officials will have some discretion.

“There is quite a bit of discretion,” Craig Winter, the USGA’s senior director of Rules of Golf and amateur status, said of the clarification.

Winter said the focus on the clarification is on deliberateness which is tied to awareness. If a caddie is unaware of a player’s action and under normal circumstances would violate the rule, under the clarification it would be determined that a player was not deliberate, and therefore no penalty would be assessed.

The clarification outlined examples when a caddie is not considered to be in deliberate violation:

– The caddie is raking a bunker or taking some similar action to care for the course and is not aware that he or she is doing so on or close to an extension of the line of play behind the ball.

– The player makes a stroke, and the ball comes to rest near the hole. The player walks up and taps the ball into the hole while the caddie is unaware that he or she is standing on or close to an extension of the line of play behind the ball.

– The caddie is standing on an extension of the line of play behind the ball, but when the player moves in to begin taking a stance, the caddie is facing away from the player or looking in a different direction and is unaware that the player has begun to take his stance.

– The caddie is engaged in a task, such as obtaining a yardage, and is unaware that the player has begun to take a stance.

Once a caddie becomes aware that he or she is behind a player in stance, the caddie must make every effort to move.

“We don’t want caddies to be diving out of the way,” Winters said, but they will need to make a considerate effort.

The new clarification also extends the treatment that players receive on greens throughout the course. If a player backs out of his stance, it is considered to be a reset and the caddie’s previous actions would be null and void.

“We’re confident it [the clarification] goes a long way to stop the impact,” Winters said of an unintended application of the rule.

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