Haotong Li
Much has been made of the penalty Haotong Li was assessed on the 72nd hole of the European Tour’s Dubai Classic on Sunday. Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

As any New Orleans Saints fan will tell you, the sporting world is rife with injustice. And if pro golf can’t touch the NFL when it comes to messing up a hotly contested battle of brains and brawn, there are times when those who oversee our game can make some remarkably dumb decisions, then back it up by saying something equally stupid.

With that in mind, let’s return to the final round of last week’s Dubai Desert Classic, where China’s Haotong Li, who happens to be one of the world’s best young players, was penalized two strokes for breaking Rule 10.2b on the 72nd hole of the tournament. The infraction occurred when Li’s caddie, Mike Burrow, was deemed to have assisted his player with alignment over a three-footer, which violates one of the numerous laws that went into effect at the start of the year.

OK, that’s it for the preliminaries.

The honeymoon’s over, too. So much for the kinder, gentler and more practical pair of governing bodies who introduced many of these new rules to speed up play and make the game slightly less ponderous.

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Before we tee off on the Royal & Asinine, however, let it be known that the USGA had nothing to do with dropping Li from a tie for third to T-12 and costing him $98,000. The penalty itself was the work of European Tour officials supervising the event, prompting Euro Tour CEO Keith Pelley to call the episode “grossly unfair” and pointing out that Li exhibited “no malice or intent, nor did he gain any advantage from his, or his caddie’s, split-second actions.”

Of course, Pelley would also condone the decision made by his referees. The world’s finest ventriloquist couldn’t do a better job of talking out of both sides of his mouth.

There are a couple of issues to pick at here. The most important is that video of the incident shows zero evidence that Burrow was helping his man line up the putt. Zero. The sequence begins with the caddie hunched over directly behind Li, who is squatting over his ball. Both are demonstrating body language commonly associated with the act of reading a short putt.

When Li rises from the crouch, Burrow takes three steps back, remaining directly behind his player for perhaps two seconds while appearing to confirm the read. He then turns left and takes almost two steps before Li slides his putter behind the ball. He’s not even looking at Li. If his intention was to line the guy up, wouldn’t Burrow have stuck around and given the matter his undivided attention?

It bothers me when men who are paid to protect the game’s competitive integrity abuse their power by calling something they didn’t see. And it flat-out burns my biscuits when neckties such as R&A boss Martin Slumbers not only support the enforcement, but claim there is no “discretionary element” to 10.2b, which is pure rubbish.

This rule has an inherent degree of subjectivity attached to it. Burrow wasn’t standing behind Li when the golfer came to address over the ball — that much is obvious. And if that is the essence of the the issue, as Slumbers suggested in his response to Pelley, either the rule needs to be rewritten or somebody owes Haotong Li $98,000.

The problem with people who decide what’s wrong and right in this game is that they think they’re smarter than everyone else. A lot of them are, but arrogance is a first cousin of intelligence, and the ability to judge situations fairly is amply affected by ego. The penalty imposed on Li bears a striking resemblance to the slow-play lashing administered to 14-year-old Tianlang Guan at the 2013 Masters.

That both players are from China has nothing to do with it. We’re talking about making an example out of someone, or more specifically, illuminating the presence of the new rules by finding a scapegoat — an unwitting player who is far less likely to fight the charges than a decorated veteran tour pro from America.

Not that it really matters. Shame on golf, shame on the powers that be. All black eyes eventually heal, but they still hurt like hell while the man who got sucker-punched is mending.

All views expressed in this column are those of John Hawkins and do not necessarily reflect those of the Caddie Network.