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PGA Tour not without fault in caddie-alignment controversy

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Everyone can agree that this is a mess. Like an Adam Levine caught-in-the-headlights, halftime-show super-mess.

Nothing about Rule 10.2b(4) works. Not Haotong Li’s penalty at last month’s Dubai Desert Classic, not Denny McCarthy’s penalty that turned out not to be a penalty last week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and not the shell game that’s now made the rounds as officials attempt to play a transparent blame game.

In a Cliff’s Notes version of the new rule that was offered to would-be PGA Tour violators, the circuit explained, “When a player begins to take a stance for the stroke, the caddie must NOT deliberately stand on or close to an extension of the line of play behind the ball, for any reason.”

For Li, whose caddie was spotted lining him up on the 18th hole in Dubai, it was a two-stroke penalty, dropping him from a tie for third to a tie for 12th. McCarthy – and later Justin Thomas – seemed to be headed to a similar penalty box for an equally innocent incident until a reprieve was issued from the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., mountaintop.

“It is clear that there is a great deal of confusion among players and caddies on the practical application of the new rule during competition, as well as questions surrounding the language of the rule itself and how it should be interpreted,” the Tour announced in a statement on Saturday. “As a result, with the full support of the USGA and the R&A, the rule will be interpreted whereby the two aforementioned situations as well as future similar situations will not result in a penalty.”

Thomas called the potential penalty “ridiculous.” It was. The Tour’s decision to subvert the rule made sense, but before we grant the circuit “smartest person in the room” status, consider how rules, including this clunky caddie alignment rule, are created.

Early last month at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was asked about this year’s slate of new rules – which includes players now putting with the flagstick in the hole and, at least initially, awkward knee-high drops – and his explanation painted an interesting picture.

“We were invited into the process early by the USGA and the R&A, our team worked very closely with [the USGA’s senior managing director of governance] Thomas Pagel and the team at the USGA to go through the process to share some of the ideas of some of our players, to try and be as insightful and helpful as we could possibly be,” Monahan explained. “Simplifying the rules and identifying the rules that needed to be changed I think is a really positive first step, but the work isn't done.”

Monahan added that some of the new rules, “we'll get right and there will be some that we'll continue to tweak and assess.”

Count caddie alignment squarely in the “tweak and assess” phase now. That’s exactly what the USGA and R&A did this week, announcing on Wednesday clarifications to the rules.

But despite its swift and strongly-worded response to last week’s ridiculousness, it’s also worth pointing out the circuit’s culpability.

Although the Tour has had a voice in the rule-making room for some time, the USGA and R&A agreed to give the circuit, as well as the PGA of America, more influence over potential changes when the organizations found themselves at odds during the anchoring debate a few years back. The Tour, which is represented on the rule-making front by senior vice president of competitions Tyler Dennis, may not have veto power over potential changes but it does have a prominent seat at the table.

For the Tour to dig in against the new rule, or at the least the rule’s ambiguous language, just as public opinion against it was poised to reach a crescendo, seems opportunistic if not duplicitous.

The circuit had a voice in the room throughout this entire process and the best minds from the USGA, R&A and, yes, PGA Tour hit a rope hook – or worse, they did speak out and were ignored which is an entirely different concern.

Rory McIlroy certainly saw the potential for big problems with the alignment rule. Asked at Torrey Pines, which was a week before Li’s misstep and two weeks before McCarthy was rightfully granted a two-stroke mulligan, the Northern Irishman was asked about this year’s rule changes and described this exact situation.

“Say I hit it in the trees and I'm looking to see if there's a gap or there's some sort of window and I've got a club in my hand and I set that club behind the ball thinking, yeah, I might be able to, and [my caddie] is standing behind me going, yeah, I think you can get it through,” McIlroy said. “I don't step away from that ball and I step into it and hit it, he's not lining me up, and he's walked away, but if I don't walk away from that ball and step back in, that's a penalty.  There is a lot of gray.”

Monahan was correct when he predicted there would likely need to be tweaks to some of the new rules, but he appeared to ignore the fact that just like the USGA and R&A, the Tour should also offer its own mea culpa for the most recent clumsy addition to the Rules of Golf.