SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Denny McCarthy was taking a few practice swings as he prepared to hit a 67-yard wedge shot into the par-5 15th green Friday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. His playing competitor, Blair Hamilton, was nearby, also taking a drop after rinsing his second shot, and was set to play first.
In that moment, cameras caught McCarthy’s caddie, Derek Smith, standing behind his player, a violation of one of the new rules of golf, Rule 10.2b(4), which prohibits a player from having his or her caddie deliberately stand behind him or her when the player begins taking a stance.
McCarthy was slapped with a two-shot penalty, and instead of saving par on the hole he had to write down a double bogey.
The penalty comes after a similar infraction was made by Haotong Li’s caddie while Li was putting during Sunday’s final round of the European Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic. Li's penalty prompted many, including European Tour commissioner Keith Pelley, to call out a rule that Pelley described as "grossly unfair."
Similar outrage will likely follow McCarthy's ruling.
“Not once in my life have I had a caddie line me up before a shot,” McCarthy said. “I had no intent to cheat at all. It’s something I guess we can learn from and move on from it, but yeah it’s definitely disappointing because I didn’t feel like I was breaking a rule at all.”
The official interpretation of the rule states that “there is no set procedure for determining when a player has begun to take a stance since each player has his or her own setup 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.”
In McCarthy’s case, his practice swings were taken in that “guidance” area as his caddie stood for several seconds behind him before walking away. A PGA Tour rules official clarified to GolfChannel.com that while Li could’ve avoided penalty by “resetting” his putting stance, players in the “general area of play” do not have that luxury.
Even though McCarthy eventually stepped away from the ball before hitting his shot, he was still in violation.
“I thought I had an understanding of the rule,” McCarthy said. “It’s just a real gray area and doesn’t make sense. The caddie can’t be standing behind me at all even if I’m taking practice swings. I wasn’t even in my routine at all, I was just taking practice swings and he just happened to be behind me for a second. I even backed away after the practice swings and he walked away, so he wasn’t even behind me at all when I was stepping into the shot.”
There was also an instance Friday in which Rickie Fowler's caddie, Joe Skovron, was looking at his yardage book when Fowler walked in front of him and addressed his ball. Skovron looked up and immediately stepped away. In this case, though, there was no penalty because Skovron was not "deliberately" standing in the line of play while Fowler was taking his stance.
The rules official said the Tour has been proactive in informing players and caddies of the new rules and even spent about an hour earlier this week going over this specific rule with the competitors.
But other pro golfers, including Justin Thomas, chimed in on the matter via Twitter, most siding with McCarthy and his caddie.
"This is ridiculous," tweeted Thomas, who is in second place at 12 under. "The fact this is a penalty is mind blowing. USGA, this NEEDS to be changed ASAP. There is nothing about this rule that makes the game better."
McCarthy was able to still shoot 4-under 67 and leads the field in strokes gained putting. But he also knows that he should be better than 6 under through 36 holes at TPC Scottsdale.
“I need to put that past me because I’m playing some really good golf and giving myself a lot of good chances,” McCarthy said. “Take that two-shot penalty away and I made three bogeys in a four-hole stretch Thursday; clean that up and I’m right there toward the top of the leaderboard.”