New rules, same issues

The new Rules of Golf heralded a new era when they came into effect on January 1, but just one month into the year, their application is already raising questions

The new era for the Rules of Golf was supposed to clarify so much of this ancient game’s ambiguity, its need for tedious discussions on interpretation, and primarily to make the game easier to watch, play and understand.

While there are hundreds of positives in the new Rules of Golf, it was disappointing to see a major rules controversy so soon.

The new rules prevent a caddie from standing behind a player as they begin to take their stance (see Rule 10.2b) – a practice that became common on the LPGA Tour as caddies blatantly aided players in lining up every shot. All was well and everyone expected the change to have positive benefits for pace of play and ensure a player’s own skill was tested properly.

Roll forward just three weeks and the European Tour and the game’s governing bodies, The R&A and USGA, were butting heads over the interpretation of the rule – and Li Haotong and his Newcastle-based caddie Michael Burrow were penalised two shots on the 72nd hole of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, dropping Haotong out of the top-10 and costing him €100,000.

For a rules official to say that Michael was lining up his player was, frankly, ridiculous. He was in position reading the putt and moved aside, crucially, before Haotong was in position to play.

Following the conclusion of the day’s play, European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley issued a statement criticising the lack of  discretion available to referees.

This was immediately rebuffed by R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers, who said the lack of discretion was a strength of the rule.

That this confrontation was played out so publicly was a hint at the importance the European Tour placed on getting this right.

Fast forward one week and Denny McCarthy found himself in the same situation at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He too was assessed a two stroke penalty despite having gone through the process of making his practice strokes, walking back behind the ball and then taking his stance all with his caddie to the side. If the PGA Tour had not stepped in, I fear players would be asking caddies to retreat into portaloos for fear of receiving a penalty.

However, sense prevailed! Following an outcry on social media, the governing bodies rescinded Denny’s penalty. In a statement they said: “After an additional review of available video, it was determined that the penalty would not apply. When the caddie was standing behind the player, the player had not yet begun taking the stance for the stroke, nor could useful guidance on aiming be given because the player was still in the process of determining how to play the stroke. The same would be true for any similar situation.”

Further clarifications have followed, explaining that players will not be penalised without having addressed the ball or when a caddie is not “deliberately” standing behind the ball.

That the rules have been in the spotlight so much within a month of their release is disappointing – though generally they are the breath of fresh air we all wanted.

While I’m sure we all hoped for an end to rules controversy, at least the governing bodies are on the ball when it comes to improving their implementation. Keep an eye out for further clarifications in coming weeks…