Irish Open lift overshadowed by rules furore
Tommy Fleetwood's decision to join home hero Shane Lowry at July's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open was overshadowed yesterday as European Tour CEO Keith Pelley took a shot at golf's new rules.
That Fleetwood is set to join the 2009 champion at Lahinch from July 4-7 - the first big name announced for what host Paul McGinley believes will be "a high-quality field" - was lost in the noise as Pelley took the extraordinary step of describing the two-stroke penalty handed to China's Li Haotong in Dubai on Sunday as "grossly unfair".
Already under fire over this week's tour stop in Saudi Arabia, Pelley issued a statement on Li's breach of Rule 10.2b (4) on the 18th green, where his caddie was in a direct line behind the ball when he began to take his stance.
He was penalised two strokes, losing close to €100,000 as he fell from tied third to tied 12th, provoking protests on social media from tour players, including Paul McGinley and Graeme McDowell.
McGinley called for players to be given the benefit of the doubt over something "so ridiculously marginal", adding that "the rule changes are largely about the spirit of the game & player integrity not this pedanticness (sic)."
McDowell said he could see "no evidence" of an attempt to line up the player. Pelley's problem is with the wording of the rule, which leaves tour rules officials with no wriggle room when a caddie is behind a player as he begins to take his stance, leaving him liable to a penalty.
"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," 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."
He expressed his concerns to R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers, who responded with an official statement pointing out that no discretion was possible under a rule rewritten this year to clamp down on the practice of caddies lining up players.
"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," Slumbers said.
"Whether the player intends to be lined up is not the issue... 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."
The good news for the European Tour is that Ryder Cup star Fleetwood will be joining Lowry in the $7 million Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch.
"I'm really looking forward to it," said Lowry, who became just the third amateur to win a European Tour event when he out-gunned a quality field a decade ago.
"I always say that Irish Open in Baltray was probably my greatest achievement to date and probably will always be, unless I can top it with a Major."
At Staysure Tour Qualifying School Finals in Portugal, Belfast's Damian Mooney opened with a one-over 72 at Pestana Golf Resort to share 12th place, just three shots outside the top five who will be awarded cards after four rounds. Headfort's Brendan McGovern was tied 46th after a 75.