Summer 2018

Simplifying The Game


Back when golf was played with feathery balls and wooden shafts, the game was exceedingly difficult yet painfully simple.


Sure, the instruments used for the task of getting around a course were ill suited for the endeavor. But the rules were simple, just 10 of them, and the basic premise of the day was to hit the ball and play it from where it lay.


Time, technology and growth changed the game in monumental ways, and along with came an ever-growing rule book that became so big as to be considered backbreaking if carried around.


There were 34 Rules of Golf and hundreds of decisions and good luck figuring out right from wrong if you dove into the practical details of the game and wanted to play by the letter of the law.


All of that is changing.


Going back to 10 rules is not occurring, but the governing bodies of the game – the United States Golf Association and the R&A – have undertaken the huge task of simplifying and modifying the rules book. Started in 2012, the work resulted in a 2017 recommendation for a condescended rules book, with a one-year comment period for adjustments, followed by what was a final version released this spring.


The new version of golf’s rules will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.


“It’s been a long process but a gratifying one,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status. “Now comes the fun part where we get to share with the world everything that has been done.”


Among the biggest changes is a player will not incur a penalty for a ball (or ball marker) that he accidently moves on the putting green or in search of a ball. Both now mean a 1-stroke penalty.


“Our aim is to make the rules easier to follow and to apply for all golfers,” said David Rickman, executive director – governance for the R&A. “We have looked at every rule to try to find ways of making them more intuitive and straightforward, and we believe we have identified a number of significant improvements.


“It is important that the rules continue to evolve and remain in tune with the way the modern game is played, but we have been careful not to change the game’s longstanding principles and character.”


According to both organizations, the rules have been written “in a user-friendly style with shorter sentences, commonly used phrases, bulleted lists and explanatory headings.”


Once adopted, the rules will be supported by technology that allows the usage of photographs, images and graphics.


“I think it’s great,” said Rory McIlroy, one of several players who met with the USGA and was briefed over a year ago on the proposed alterations. “I think golf can be too complicated. To modernize the rules and make them simpler is a good thing.”


Among the changes that will take place on Jan. 1:

• Elimination of reduction of “moved ball” penalties: No penalty for accidentally moving a ball on the putting green or in searching for a ball; and a player is not responsible for causing a ball to move unless it is “virtually certain” that he or she did so.


• Relaxed putting green rules: No penalty if a ball played from the putting green hits an unattended flagstick in the hole; players may putt without having the flagstick attended or removed. Players may repair spike marks, animal damage and other damage on the putting green and there is no penalty for merely touching the line of putt.


• Relaxed rules for “penalty areas” (currently called water hazards): Red and yellow-marked penalty areas may now cover areas of desert, jungle, lava rock, etc., in addition to areas of water; expanded use of red penalty areas where lateral relief is allowed; and no penalty for touching the ground, water or loose impediments in a penalty area.


• Relaxed bunker rules: No penalty for touching loose impediments in a bunker or for generally touching the sand with a hand or club. A limited set of restrictions (such as no grounding the club right next to the ball) is kept to preserve the challenge of playing from the sand; however, an extra-relief option was added for an unplayable ball in a bunker, allowing the ball to be played from outside the bunker with a two-stroke penalty.


• Trusting player integrity: A player’s “reasonable judgment” when estimating or measuring a spot, point, line, area or distance will be upheld, even if video evidence later shows it to be wrong; and elimination of announcement procedures when lifting a ball to identify it or to see if it is damaged.


• Pace-of-play support: New simplified procedure for how to drop a ball in a relief area; reduced time for searching for a lost ball (from five minutes to three); and other changesintended to help with pace of play. Players will be able to drop from knee height as opposed to the shoulder (which was originally proposed to be just inches off the ground.)


Speeding up the game is at the core of many of the changes. To that end, the governing bodies have said that players can take no more than 40 seconds to play their shot – or less – when it is their turn. And they are stressing that the order of play – which has never resulted in a penalty – is not an issue, with “ready golf” encouraged.


To that end, at the recreational level, a local rule is being added to avoid the stroke and distance penalty for hitting a ball out of bounds. Although this will not be used at the professional level or elite competition, a player who hits a ball out of bounds will have the ability to drop near the spot and take two strokes before playing – rather than hitting from the same spot or going back to the spot to hit.


One change will have a big impact on the LPGA Tour by no longer allowing caddies to stand behind a player while they line up a shot. Currently a caddie can stand behind the player until they are over the ball; that would result in a penalty. With all of these changes, the rule book is being reduced from 34 rules to 24.


It’s not back 10, but it will be simpler and far more straightforward. “This was out of recognition that in trying to make the rules more fair, they became too complicated,” Pagel said. “With 30-plus years of tinkering, they got complicated, and that wasn’t good for the game.”



Summer 2018