By Tony Jimenez
GULLANE, Scotland (Reuters) - Japan's Hideki Matsuyama was the unlucky recipient of the British Open's first slow-play penalty for nine years during the third round at Muirfield on Saturday.
Almost out of the blue, slow play suddenly became a hot topic as the Royal & Ancient (R&A) organizers decided to clamp down on an issue that has blighted the game in recent decades.
Scotland's Martin Laird was also handed a one-stroke penalty for handling the ball in the rough at the par-five 17th.
The penultimate hole was also where Matsuyama was punished for taking too long over his second shot.
The world number 44 and American Johnson Wagner were initially put on the clock on the 15th hole because they were 15 minutes over the scheduled time and out of position on the group ahead.
Matsuyama's first 'bad time' was recorded at one minute 12 seconds on a putt at the 15th.
He then transgressed again at the 17th and his par-five turned into a six, becoming the first Open competitor to be penalized for slow play since Britain's Andrew Willey in the 2004 edition at Troon.
"Hideki is the first player to receive two bad times this week," the R&A's executive director for rules and equipment standards David Rickman said in a news conference.
"There was a ball hit in the crowd. He walked forward to look at the stroke he had and then walked back to his ball and the timing official allowed all that to happen before the watch was started," added Rickman after Matsuyama carded a 72 for 216 to trail leader Lee Westwood by six strokes.
"We feel we were appropriately liberal with the starting of the timing procedure and then the stroke itself took two minutes 12 seconds to play which is well over twice the allotted time."
Matsuyama and Wagner believed the one-shot penalty was unjust and some reporters suggested there had been a language problem when the Japanese was warned at the 15th hole.
"My understanding is the rules position was made clear to the player," said Rickman. "If there was something lost in translation clearly that is regrettable.
"But when I talked to Hideki in the recording office after the round he did not raise that point to me. We are certainly not in the business of unsettling players but we have a pace of play policy to get players around in a reasonable amount of time."
Earlier, world number seven Graeme McDowell complained about being put on the clock.
"Surely we're allowed to get off to a bad start?," said the Northern Irishman after posting a 73 for 219. "There's a difference between slow play and bad play.
"They put us on the clock for one hole and we got to the next tee and they said you're off the clock now. So it's like make up your minds, guys.
"On the clock on the fifth hole is a bit out of order really."
Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington were another pair put on the clock, as were championship leader Westwood and his playing partner Tiger Woods.
"Yeah, we got put on the clock," said Westwood. "I'm not really sure why.
"There's a lot going on out there, there's a lot of people inside the ropes. You have to back off it now and again and I think we slipped four minutes out of position.
"We were both chuckling about it like two old ladies," added Westwood.
Laird, like Matsuyama, was also handed a rare penalty as he slumped to an 81 for 222.
"He hit a second shot in the rough and ... marked the position of the ball and touched it and just moved it ever so slightly," said Rickman.
"This is a situation covered by Rule 12-2 which requires the player to announce to his fellow competitor, before getting his hand on the ball, either to move it slightly or to lift it ... and he didn't do that."
(Editing by Ed Osmond/Sonia Oxley/Alan Baldwin)