Denny McCarthy
Because of a new rule put in place for 2019, Denny McCarthy was assessed a two-stroke penalty on Friday when his caddie, Derek Smith, allegedly aligned McCarthy for a shot. Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

In just six days’ time, a 2019 revision to the Rules of Golf has claimed two victims.

On Sunday, China’s Haotong Li was assessed a two-stroke penalty on the 72nd hole of the European Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic when his caddie, Mike Burrow, was deemed to have assisted Li with alignment over a three-footer.

Video evidence seemed to make a compelling case that Burrow did no such thing.

However, the R&A wouldn’t hear otherwise, throwing the book at Li under Rule 10.2b (2), which states:

(2) Pointing Out Line of Play for Ball on Putting Green. Before the stroke is made, only the player and his or her caddie may point out the player’s line of play, but with these limitations:

The player or caddie may touch the putting green with a hand, foot or anything he or she is holding, but must not improve the conditions affecting the stroke in breach of Rule 8.1a, and…

The player or caddie must not set an object down anywhere on or off the putting green to show the line of play. This is not allowed even if that object is removed before the stroke is made.

While the stroke is being made, the caddie must not deliberately stand in a location on or close to the player’s line of play or do anything else (such as pointing out a spot on the putting green) to point out the line of play.

The decision dropped Li from a T3 to T12 and cost him $98,000.

Fast forward to Friday and the second round of the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. That’s where Denny McCarthy was popped with a two-stroke penalty for a violation of Rule 10.2b (1):

(1) Pointing Out Line of Play for Ball Anywhere Except on Putting Green. A player may have his or her line of play pointed out by:

Having his or her caddie or any other person stand on or close to the player’s line of play to show where it is, but that person must move away before the stroke is made.

Having an object (such as a bag or towel) set down on the course to show the line of play, but the object must be removed before the stroke is made.

Here’s the video where McCarthy’s caddie, Derek Smith, is supposedly lining up his player.

Note that the video shows Smith stepping away from McCarthy and McCarthy backing off the shot before digging back in. But that doesn’t matter under the new rule from anywhere but the green.

If Smith had done the same thing on the green and McCarthy reset, there would have been no penalty. But off the green, that isn’t the case under the new rule.

The Caddie Network chatted with Smith about the penalty late Friday night. What should have been a 6-under 65 for McCarthy in Round 2 was instead a 4-under 67, which left him tied for 17th at 6-under total through 36 holes.

“That whole moment, it’s like, I’m helping him play the shot and talking him through it before he steps in,” Smith said. “Lining him up? That never crossed my mind in a million years. I’d never line him up even if it were still legal. Lining him up was never a part of anything we ever did in my two years working for Denny. I thought that rule was for the LPGA Tour where caddies are lining players up for everything. It’s so hard to be working and also worrying about where you’re standing.

“It was a feel shot from 65 yards,” he added. “But it never crossed my mind that I was ever violating a rule or cheating. In the extent of my career – two years with him – I’ve never lined Denny up. To be told we’re cheating over a normal conversation for a normal golf shot is tough to take, for sure.”

“Lining him up? That never crossed my mind in a million years. I’d never line him up even if it were still legal. Lining him up was never a part of anything we ever did in my two years working for Denny.” — Derek Smith, McCarthy’s caddie

Smith said there was a rules meeting for players and caddies at TPC Scottsdale on Tuesday of this week at 2 p.m. – one which he and McCarthy did not attend.

“The rules official almost wanted to fault us for not being at that rules meeting,” he said. “The meeting was at 2 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon and we were on the course trying to catch up learning the course to play a tournament we’ve never played before… I get it’s considered an infraction, but the rule is poorly written. Their intent had to be for caddies to not line players up and it’s written very poorly.”

Smith said that he and McCarthy were made aware of the two-shot penalty on the second hole – their 11th of the day – five holes after the incident. From that point, McCarthy rallied to play his final seven holes in 4-under par to post the 67, impressive considering the circumstances.

All along the way, the player and caddie felt there was a case to be made post-round to challenge the penalty – with the video evidence – before signing the scorecard.

“It lit a fire under us,” Smith told the Caddie Network. “Denny was frustrated but handled it great. We finished the round feeling like we had a legit chance to argue it away. We’re going to look at the video. We didn’t think it was a sure thing that we’d get it reversed, but it was in the back of our minds. We saw the video and it didn’t change our thoughts. What did we do wrong? We were playing with Carlos Ortiz and a Monday qualifier. Both supported us that there was no infraction. Denny argued until he was blue in the face and Carlos argued for us big time. He completely had our back in the scoring tent. Everybody knew there was no intent.”

It didn’t matter – the rules are the rules the way it’s currently written.

There was sharp criticism of the rule on social media Friday night. Justin Thomas, Luke Donald, Eddie Pepperell and Ben Kohles were among the players who weighed in in support of McCarthy and in disbelief over how the penalty is being assessed:

Caddies Kip Henley and Craig Connelly also had opinions on the incident. Connelly even used the “c” word – “cheat,” in stressing his displeasure:

To highlight how bizarre the rule is, Smith noted something that happened on the final hole of the round.

“Denny on the ninth – our 18th – he hit it six inches off the green, on the fringe, 15 feet from the flag,” Smith explained. “It crossed my mind right there that this were a situation where should I read the putt from behind the ball and he steps in there, it’s a penalty just like what happened in the fairway on 15. That’s mind boggling to me.”

So how did McCarthy handle things with Smith after the penalty was assessed?

“Denny didn’t fault me for a second,” Smith said. “He was as baffled as I was. He handled it incredibly. He didn’t even get ‘kinda mad’ at me, like I should have known better. Should we have known better? Maybe, but that rule in no way applies an advantage to anyone. We’re never, ever thinking like that. I’m all over the place. I don’t know what to think.”