Haotong Li should have finished in a five-way tie for third place at last weekend’s Dubai Desert Classic. It would have been a somewhat disappointing finish given that he came into the final round only one shot off of the leader’s pace, though he still would have left the United Arab Emirates with a nice six-figure payout. Instead, he finished in a three-way tie for twelfth, losing around $100,000 in the process. Most cruelly of all, it wasn’t even his fault.
Li’s final shot of the tournament was the following short birdie putt. Can you spot the blatant rule violation that cost Li two strokes and six figures?
Obviously, Li’s caddie Mike Burrow violated Rule 10.2b(4) of the new Rules of Golf, which went into effect at the start of 2019. The rule states:
The player’s caddie must not deliberately stand in a location on or close to an extension of the line of play behind the ball for any reason.
Rule 10.3b(3) elaborates on what exactly caddies are not allowed to do:
Deliberately stand on or close to an extension of the line of play behind the player’s ball when the player begins taking a stance for the stroke and until the stroke is made (Rule 10.2b(4)) or take other actions prohibited by Rule 10.2b.
The video shows that Li didn’t get into his stance until after Burrow had already moved on from behind the ball, which makes this seem like a poorly applied over-interpretation of this new rule at the worst possible time. Li is the first player penalized under the new rule, which only makes it feel even more unfair.
Several of Li’s peers are angry about the decision, and European Tour CEO Keith Pelley even released a statement today on the matter. He said referees made the correct decision by the book, though he also said it was “grossly unfair” and blamed R&A, the agency responsible for the rulebook:
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 response to Pelley’s statement, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers released a statement of his own defending the interpretation of the rule:
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.
If only they could learn from the NFL and implement a video review process, that way everything would be much clearer.