Golfer given questionable penalty that European Tour CEO calls 'grossly unfair'

When Haotong Li made his birdie putt on the 72nd hole at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour over the weekend, he thought he'd notched a 16-under 272 and T3 finish alongside Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter. Li, the defending champ, backed up his title nicely with the 272.

Except that he hadn't scored a 272.

Li was penalized on the final green because officials said his caddie had broken Rule 10.2 b. (4). Here's what that rule states.

(4) Restriction on Caddie Standing Behind Player. When a player begins taking a stance for the stroke and until the stroke is made:

  • 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.

  • If the player takes a stance in breach of this Rule, he or she cannot avoid penalty by backing away.

Li was given two penalty strokes, which turned a 4 into a 6, a 71 into a 73 and a 272 into a 274. Here's a look at the festivities of this new rule, which just came into play 28 days ago at the start of the new year.

The penalty was costly. It cost Li a top-10 finish and around $100,000. It also cost the European Tour some questionable press on a week when -- trust me -- they don't need anymore questionable press. European Tour CEO Keith Pelley, for his part, is not pleased.

"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," said Pelley in a statement. "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."

The response from R&A CEO Martin Slumbers is pretty intense, as well.

"We have reviewed the Li Haotong ruling made by the European Tour referees and agree that it was correct," said Slumbers in a statement. "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."

Let me try and translate all of this for you. Li's caddie, by letter of the law, should not stand in "a location on or close to an extension of the line of play behind the ball" when a player begins taking a stance. Technically, Li and his caddie were in violation of this, I guess, even though when a stance begins is as ambiguous as it is silly. Pelley's point remains. So many of the rules of the game are still up to the player's interpretation and intent, and this one especially should give players the benefit of the doubt.

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

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