In a statement released by the European tour on Monday, CEO Keith Pelley called the ruling “grossly unfair.”
Standing over a short putt on the 72nd green, Li began his address of the ball as his caddie was still standing behind him — the caddie walked away as Li was settling over the putt. But under the revised Rules of Golf released on Jan. 1, officials said Li and his caddie violated Rule 10.2b(4), which “does not allow a player to have his or her caddie deliberately stand behind him or her when the player begins taking a stance because aiming at the intended target is one of the challenges the player must overcome alone. There is no set procedure for determining when a player has begun to take a stance since each player has his or her own set-up routine. However, if a player has his or her feet or body close to a position where useful guidance on aiming at the intended target could be given, it should be decided that the player has begun to take his or her stance.”
Li made the putt, but the birdie was later changed to a bogey and he fell from T3 to T12.
“The decision made by our referees was correct, under the strict wording of the rules,” Pelley said in the 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 address immediately.
“There was no malice or intent from Li Haotong, nor did he gain any advantage from this, or his caddie’s split-second actions,” he continued. “Therefore the subsequent two-shot penalty, which moved him from T3 in the tournament to T12, was grossly unfair in my opinion.”
Pelley’s statement was in line with what many other European pros said on social media. Eddie Pepperell called it “a shockingly bad decision” and Graeme McDowell said it was an “awfully harsh penalty.”
“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,” Pelley said.
Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of The R&A, released a statement in response to Pelley’s criticism.
“We have reviewed the Li Haotong ruling made by the European Tour referees and agree that it was correct,” he said. “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.”