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Golf rule changes have affected play as PGA Tour reaches Genesis Open at Riviera

Golf rule changes have affected play as PGA Tour reaches Genesis Open at Riviera
Adam Scott hits out of the bunker on the 16th hole in the first round of the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club on Feb. 15, 2018 in Pacific Palisades. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Genesis Open begins Thursday at Riviera Country Club with the usual list of questions hanging over the iconic golf course in Pacific Palisades.

► Will Tiger Woods finally win this tournament after 12 unsuccessful attempts?

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► Will Phil Mickelson, coming off a victory at Pebble Beach, continue to defy Father Time and win for the third time in Los Angeles at 48 years of age?

► Will Bubba Watson repeat as champion and become the first four-time winner of the event in more than 60 years?

Then there is the question that has cropped up almost weekly in 2019: What aspects of the new rules of golf will take over the discussion once play begins?

After five years of study, the U.S. Golf Assn. and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the governing bodies of the sport, initiated several amended rules at the start of the year.

Three in particular generated a lot of discussion beforehand: Players would no longer be penalized for hitting the flagstick while on the putting surface; a new drop rule mandated releasing the ball from knee height rather than the shoulders, and for the first time players would be allowed to repair virtually any damage on the greens, including spike marks, that might affect their putts.

“Players have definitely called us more with questions on the rules,” said Mark Russell, tour vice president of rules and competition. “They just don’t want to make a mistake ...

“This is probably the biggest set of rules changes in the history of the game.”

Aside from the odd appearance of some players putting with the pin still in the cup and of players occasionally forgetting the new method of dropping the ball when taking relief, those rules have had little impact beyond their novelty.

But a couple of other rules have become major stories, resulting in the disqualification of one superstar player, a two-stroke penalty that cost another nearly $100,000, and a similar two-shot penalty on a third that was rescinded a day later and ultimately forced the governing bodies to rewrite and clarify the new rule before the next week’s tournament.

In late January, Li Haotong of China was penalized two strokes in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, a European PGA Tour event, for violating a new rule stating that a caddie could not be positioned behind a player and help align him as he prepared to hit a shot. The violation occurred because Li’s caddie hadn’t left a position behind the player as Li began to get into his putting stance. The penalty, for violation of Rule 10.2b(4), cost Li $98,000 and dropped him from a tie for third to a tie for 12th.

Because he was on the putting surface, had Li backed away, then resumed his stance after his caddie had moved, there would have been no penalty. Nor would there have been an infraction had his caddie moved before Li began taking his stance.

Keith Pelley, CEO of the European Tour, said the penalty was “grossly unfair,” that there had been no intent by Li or his caddie to circumvent the rule and that officials should be able to apply the rule with some discretion. But the R&A ruled the letter of the law needed to be upheld and the penalty stood.

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The next week in Phoenix, at the Waste Management Open, Denny McCarthy was assessed a similar penalty because his caddie was behind him while he was taking practice swings from the fairway. McCarthy said there was never any intent for his caddie to line up his shot. Other players were also upset. Justin Thomas tweeted that the penalty was “ridiculous.”

The next day, the PGA Tour rescinded the penalty. And the following week, the USGA and R&A issued an amended rule to clarify the issue, eliminating any penalty if a caddie moved from behind the player before the player began taking his stance and allowing the player to step back, then reposition himself (mimicking the putting rule).

“I think they realized it’s very easy to trap a player,” Russell of the change in the rule on the caddie’s position behind the player. “They’re not lining anybody up, they might be just looking at the yardage book. But now there’s a good out, especially when the player can just step back, then get into his stance.”

Tony Finau, playing in L.A. this week, said the rules of the game need to be applied with a dose of perspective.

“I always feel like the rules officials should have the power at the time to make a fair call, to use some discretion,” Finau said. “McCarthy’s penalty, they took back. Haotong Li’s, they should have taken back.

“Guys aren’t trying to break rules out here, and rules officials should be able to protect the player and the integrity of the game. If a rules official goes up to Li and asks, ‘Do you feel like you violated the rule?’ and he says no, this is an honest game and the integrity of the game rests with the individual. We have to honor that.”

The same week as the Phoenix tournament, Sergio Garcia was playing in the Saudi International in Saudi Arabia, and was disqualified after the third round for “serious misconduct” after damaging several greens with his putter. Another of the new rules, Rule 1.2a, states, in part, that a player can be disqualified for failing to take good care of the course.

Garcia apologized afterward, did not challenge the disqualification and promised not to repeat the behavior.

Russell said that USGA officials have been giving seminars to players and caddies on the new rules each week and is hopeful players are getting more accustomed to the changes.

“But you never know with the rules of golf,” he said. “I’m sure something else will pop up down the road, but we’re pretty confident right now.”

GENESIS OPEN FACTS

What: Genesis Open.

Where: Riviera Country Club; Yardage 7,322. Par: 71.

TV: Thursday-Friday, noon-3 p.m. (Golf Channel); Saturday, 10-11:45 a.m. (Golf Channel), noon-3 p.m. (Ch. 2); Sunday, 10-11:45 a.m. (Golf Channel); noon-3:30 p.m. (Ch. 2).

2018 champion: Bubba Watson.

Tiger Tale: Tiger Woods makes his second start of the year at the tournament his foundation runs. Riviera is the PGA Tour course he has played the most times (9) without winning. His best result was a tie for second, two shots behind, in 1999. Woods lost in a playoff in 1998 to Billy Mayfair at Valencia Country Club.

Noteworthy: Bubba Watson has won at Riviera three of the last five years. ... The No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world — Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka — will not be present. … Tim O'Neal received the Charlie Sifford exemption to promote advancement in diversity. … Phil Mickelson, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am last week, is a two-time winner at Riviera. It will be his first time competing against Woods in the same tournament since the Tour Championship. … Fred Couples, 59, who won in 1990 and 1992, is playing on a sponsor exemption. This will be his 36th start at Riviera, including the 1983 and 1995 PGA Championships.

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