Li Penalty at Dubai Questioned

Haotong Li Suffers Two-Stroke Penalty for Caddie Lining Up His Player

Those of us who play in the golf world whenever we can were somewhat relieved to see some updating of the game’s rules in recent months. For years, we’ve watched as “trivial” or more politely “peripheral” penalties are called on players, costing all kinds of money and rankings over nothing. We’ve been through the Lexi trials, and scratched our heads. We’ve seen a player hit the ball with a divot taken during a practice swing, and now we have a caddie violation from the Dubai Desert Classic. Haotong Li, from China, is not a peripheral player at the Dubai. He has won it before, and did well again last week, despite not winning. As he prepared to line up his birdie putt on 18, caddie Mike Burrow stood behind him, in the extended line of play. Later on, Li was informed that he was to be assessed a two-stroke penalty for having his caddie line up the player and club along with assessing the line. It knocked Li down nine places on the leaderboard, and cost him nearly $100,000. Some exec of the ruling body sitting on a couch somewhere made all of this possible.

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We know from the age of television that it is perfectly legal for a caddie to help line up a putt for his player. Those conversations have been picked on microphone for decades. Frankly, they sound a lot like the conversations I had growing up with my inside-the-family putting coach. Actually, mine were worse. On a straight-putt, he would say “It’s straight up. Why are you aiming for east Wyoming?” I would say, “No no, I’m aiming straight at it.” The response, “You just think you are. You’re going to end up on the other side of the mound,” and so forth. I loved having that second look from a person who really could putt, penalty or not.

However, the incident in question falls under the heading of Rule 10 2b. The caddie can’t do what mine did, by standing there and saying, “No, that’s too far right, bring it in a little.” On most levels, I understand the gist of that. You’re supposed to win or lose a golf tournament on the basis of your own play, which includes your own judgment.¬† However, after watching the video ten times or so, I’m coming to the same conclusion a lot of the players are reaching. By the time Li addressed the ball for the final time, and relined it up himself, the caddie is long gone, having walked away seconds before the putter is placed behind the ball. That’s not lining up the player, Once done with his advice, he was leaving his player alone to use his own judgment on the putt.

There is a lot of player integrity out there on tour, but I understand that if things were left strictly to the honor system, someone would come along to take advantage of it. The determination was almost immediately made that Li had no intent to break the rules. Beside having no history of unsportsmanlike behavior, why would he choose a birdie putt on the 18th to cheat, with a TV camera looming over his shoulder? By extension, the same goes for his caddie. I’m with Graeme McDowell in thinking that no effort was made to interfere with “alignment of the putter.” The man was gone, and the player had not yet put the putter behind the ball to be lined up again. The penalty, however, stands, and the ruling body thinks, once again, that it got everything right.

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Flipping to the honor system in all matters is not what is being requested by those who thought the penalty unfair. As Brendan Porath suggested, there is too much history where the governors of golf “forego common sense,” Now that we can putt with the pin in, clear loose impediments from a bunker, and take an extra deep breath before lining up a character-builder, it seems that we have a few “peripheral” matters to resolve before the game is truly nonsense-free.

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