LIV Golf’s first rules dispute showed upstart league still a work in progress

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The LIV Golf Invitational has been a tournament operation filled with adjustments.

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ST. ALBANS, England — Amid all the glitz and glamour that money can buy at the LIV Golf Invitational, a question remained about the stuff inside the ropes: Would this professional golf tournament still work like a professional golf tournament? 

For the most part, the answer has been yes, but the upstart nature of the league meant the question was warranted. For example, how would the first weird rules dispute shake out? Late Thursday, we found out.

Shortly after the first round concluded, the taxi cabs transporting players to and from the course motored into the scoring area. Out climbed J.C. Ritchie, a South African golfer, and his “player support” staffer — both walking straight up to Slugger White, formerly of the PGA Tour and now the chief rules official of the LIV series. There had been a rules issue on the 5th hole, and they needed some guidance.

While on the tee at the 5th, a 169-yard par-3, Ritchie examined the bag of one of his playing partners, Jinichiro Kozuma, curious to see which club he had pulled. As Ritchie leaned over to inspect, Kozuma’s caddie, Yuhei Yoshimoto, signaled to Ritchie the club that his player had pulled, which is a violation of the Rules of Golf. 

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Communicating the club a player is using to another player who hasn’t hit the shot is deemed to be giving “advice” and an infraction of Rule 10.2a. Kozuma would feel the brunt of it, even if the rule was breached by his caddie.

“The boys had a long think about it and they pulled him over and gave [Yoshimoto] a good warning,” Ritchie clarified Friday afternoon, before teeing off. “They decided that, in that case, because I had already seen what club he hit, then [his caddie] signaled, he wasn’t really doing me any favors because I had already got the information I wanted. It was mostly just to get him warned and aware that he can’t do that.

The mere fact that it happened weighed on Ritchie, who said he was anxious to “keep the game honest.”

“It sort of threw me completely because I knew I had to bring it up,” Ritchie added. “It’s just an uncomfortable thing to deal with in the middle of a round.”

It is a rule with gray area, but also one that players should know well. Ritchie made bogey, his 15th hole of the day, and added another bogey to his card on 18 to shoot 73.

Assessing the situation a day later, Ritchie said he thought Kozuma’s looper wasn’t a professional caddie but just a friend of Kozuma. While they may well be friends, Yoshimoto is a professional caddie; he has been looping for Kozuma for at least 18 months. He also had his own playing career, with starts on the Japan Golf Tour. The main complication was that Kozuma and Yoshimoto don’t speak English. White’s rules staff of six — which he admits will look much different for the five LIV events in America — don’t speak Japanese. Nor does Ritchie or his caddie. The rules were lost in translation.

White’s 40-year career at the PGA Tour has helped him develop relationships with only a portion of the LIV field. But in regard to some of the lower-ranking players, including many of whom have never played on the PGA Tour, White said Friday evening: “I don’t even know who they are. That’s the sad part. And I hate that.” (White also issued one other warning to the Kozuma-Yoshimoto duo, which could easily be communicated visually: replace your divots.)

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Thus concluded the first rules dispute in LIV Golf history. But more weirdness was to come.

Phachara Khongwatamai, of Thailand, the third player in Ritchie’s group, was playing so well Thursday that many of his shots were being shown on the event’s coverage. Ritchie, noting the action of the cameras around them, was concerned that viewers streaming at home might have seen the infraction and thought it had been overlooked. That was Ritchie’s first question when he approached White near scoring.

“If something like that happens out there,” he asked White Thursday, “do you want me to just be quiet?” 

White, it appeared, was unsure what to say. It was an odd question, to be sure, but Ritchie’s player support followed with the same query. What do you want us to do? 

“Well, you have a fiduciary responsibility to the rest of the field,” White said.

“Did something happen out there?” I asked Ritchie as he headed in to finalize his scores.

His player support turned around and said, “No. Nothing.” 

InsideGOLF member exclusive: Join Sean Zak and Dylan Dethier Monday at 11 a.m. for a live, exclusive conversation about what things were like on site. Not a member? Sign up NOW.

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.