During the final round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, Haotong Li was hit with a two-shot penalty on the final hole because his caddie was lined up behind his putt. A new rule specifies that from the time a player “begins to take a stance for the stroke” until the stroke is made, a caddie “must not deliberately stand on or close to an extension of the line of play behind the ball for any reason.” As our Ryan Herrington notes, Li could have avoided the penalty had he backed off the stroke and retaken his stance.
However, video puts the validity of that penalty into question, as Li was arguably not in his stance during the infraction:
The penalty dropped Li from a T-3 to a T-12 finish, which translated to loss of $100,000 in earnings. Many of Li's fellow players defended him on Twitter, raising the profile of the controversy.
On Monday, rather than douse those flames, European Tour CEO Keith Pelley agreed with the assessment.
"Let me state initially that, under the new Rules of Golf...the decision made by our referees was correct, under the strict wording of the rules," Pelley said. "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."
Pelley stated he believed Li had "no malice or intent" to gain advantage from his caddie and that the penalty was "grossly unfair." Pelley also asserted he was voicing his opposition to the R&A about the lack of referee discretion on this rule.
Said Pelley: "In an era where we are striving to improve all aspects of golf, we need to be careful and find the proper balance between maintaining the integrity of the game and promoting its global appeal."
UPDATE—4:30 p.m.: The R&A's chief executive Martin Slumbers released the following statement:
“We have reviewed the Li Haotong ruling made by the European Tour referees and agree that it was correct. 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.
“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.”