The extraordinary face-off over the Haotong Li penalty
When have we ever seen anything like this – the chief executives of the European Tour and R&A going at it in public?
We always knew, at some point, that elements of the 2019 Rules of Golf changes were going to come under the microscope when they were enforced at the highest level.
But who expected these two huge organisations to start hammering out their differences in press statements after rules officials judged Haotong Li’s caddie Mike Burrow to be standing on the line of play on the final green in Dubai?
Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way first. According to the rule, the Chinese player is in breach of 10.2b (4).
He began to take his stance, Burrow was directly behind him at that point and regardless of intent the rule is pretty clear.
This caused plenty of controversy over the weekend!
? Haotong Li was given a two-stroke penalty for this incident, after his caddie supposedly helped line him up over this putt. He fell from T3 to T12.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
LIKE ♥️ – Right Decision
RT ? – Wrong Decision pic.twitter.com/WU4fGqFtkv
— HowDidiDo (@HowDidiDo) January 28, 2019
Now whether the law is an ass is another question entirely. We’re talking about a fraction of a second, in this instance, between Burrow remaining behind his player and starting to move away.
It’s not like Li sat his putter behind the ball and his caddie crouched down at his feet and gave it the big stare until both were certain the former was lined up properly.
Burrow moved just a tad too late for the rules officials and it cost his man about £75,000.
The uproar from that decision, though, and not just public discontent, presented European Tour top dog Keith Pelley with a problem.
He had rafts of his members up in arms and roaring their disapproval. As the man in charge of their welfare, so to speak, he clearly felt he needed to do something to dim their din.
And so we got this amazing statement where he basically fired a cannon at the St Andrews clubhouse.
Yes the referees were right, Pelley said, but he added: “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”.
He said the two shot penalty incurred by Li was “grossly unfair” and then – poking the R&A with a stick even further – continued that “we need to be careful and find the proper balance between maintaining the integrity of the game and promoting its global appeal”.
Pelley saved his best for last, and declared he had “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”.
For those of us who believe Li to be wronged, this all sounds like common sense and, as a public relations exercise, shows the Tour’s top man to be speaking out in defence of his members.
But if you look a little closer, Pelley is actually asking an extraordinary thing of the game’s governing body. He wants them, effectively, to let him bend their own rules.
Imagine if the chief executive of the Premier League demanded of FIFA that referees could alter a law as they saw fit because one particularly dodgy call had robbed a team of the title. There would be uproar, wouldn’t there?
I might not like this rule (and I don’t as it has been interpreted in this case) and I might ask for it to be changed to avoid this situation happening again. But there is a process to go through.
Calling for discretion – to allow an official’s individual judgement to determine whether a rule should be applied or not – has to be going a step too far.
It’s no wonder that Slumbers, who was surely seething when the European Tour’s statement landed in the email inboxes of golf journalists all over the world, felt compelled to reply.
“There has been some misunderstanding of the new Rule,” he started. “We appreciate 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.”
He “made it clear to Keith”. You can almost hear the teeth grinding.
Slumbers, it should be noted, accepts as everyone else does that the Li ruling was a “very unfortunate situation”.
But rules are rules and what he would expect is that the game’s chief organisations show some collective responsibility when it comes to their implementation and enforcement.
What he has got, though, is Pelley grandstanding to a twitter audience – and behaving more like a caller to 606 than a chief executive.
That leaves us with an unseemly face off, between two of golf’s most prominent figures, over a subsection of a rule.
It’s unprecedented and makes the fall out over DJ’s moving ball at the US Open look like a small tiff.
It’s also a far cry from the intentions of the 2019 rule changes – to make the game simpler and to avoid these sorts of high profile catastrophes.
Welcome to the soap opera. We won’t have seen the climax of this yet.