Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Modernizing the Rules of Golf Review: Nothing Off the Table

                Last Wednesday, the USGA and R & A released the proposed New Modernized Rules of Golf to go into effect in 2019. We are now in a feedback phase for 6 months where all golfers can submit feedback on the proposed Rules directly to their governing body. The Rules Modernization project is 5 years in the making and is the most comprehensive overhaul of the Rules since 1984, when the current 34 Rules were developed and implemented.
                I, for one, am incredibly impressed at the draft and look forward to seeing what changes come after the feedback period. The governing bodies clearly took an open mind and left nothing off the discussion table. They’ve done a wonderful job of making sure many of the previous loopholes and confusions are eliminated and fit all the moving pieces of the Rules back into place in a manner that should be understandable for all golfers. Following is not a complete review of all the changes, but an overview of the more important or more significant changes and their effects on the game. While some comments may come off as criticism, I am offering solely my opinion and fully applaud and support the extremely diligent and laborious efforts of the USGA and R & A staff and Committees involved.
(For brevity, I have used he to refer to the player when needed, rather than he or she.)

Emphasis on Pace of Play

What I love
                Acknowledging that pace of play is hurting the game of golf, it was brought to the front as an important factor in determining some of the new Rules.  The expansion on the Rules regarding pace of play, including tips and examples of what players should be doing to help are fantastic:
  •          Reducing the search time from 5 minutes to 3 minutes will help with pace of play, and making the 40-second recommendation part of the Rules may help players with lengthy pre-shot routines in developing a better approach to their strokes.
  •          Permitting players to invite opponents to play first in match play in order to save time will eliminate many match play problems. I’ve received tons of questions about this over the years and I think it’s a great move.
  •          Encouraging players to go to the next tee after finishing a hole has also been a proven method of improving pace of play, and formalizing the recommendation should help the game.

What I Don’t Love
                While there were clearly great strides in the area of improving pace of play, I think there were some places the changes either missed the mark, or could have gone farther:
  •          If you properly announce and play a provisional ball that might be lost outside a water hazard, you cannot use the provisional ball as the stroke and distance option if it is subsequently found in a penalty area (currently water hazard) or found unplayable. This has been a huge time killer and I feel that if the provisional ball is designed to help with pace of play, this is a great opportunity to pick up some time without giving an advantage to a player.
  •          Repairing nearly all forms of damage on the putting green is probably a necessary change and we’ve seen outcries from professionals and public alike about the unfairness of spike marks and other damage. However, I’m afraid it may cause an unintended slow-down on the putting green so we as golfers in general have to take this “gimme” from the governing bodies and do our best not to abuse it. Sometimes we might have to leave some damage in place so that we can play at a reasonable pace.

Revised Relief Procedures

What I Love       
Some of the greatest confusion on the Rules rested around the various relief procedures available and the complexities of dropping the ball and where it ends up.  The proposed Rules made extensive revisions to relief procedures, unifying them behind a single standard and certainly did relax and simplify the Rules for dropping:
  •          Regardless of the option used, 20 inches is the standard relief area (with exceptions for penalized relief options from penalty areas or under ball unplayable). We no longer have to guess whether a ball was dropped “as near as possible” to a spot and even embedded ball relief is given this 20 inch latitude. The standard also ensures that all golfers will have the exact same distance for relief for a given procedure.
  •         A ball must be re-dropped if it rolls outside the relief area. This greatly reduces the complexities found in current Rule 20-2c and also ensures that luck of the landscape can’t change how much relief one player gets over another in a similar situation.
  •          The procedure for dropping the ball has been relaxed and now only requires that the ball fall through the air and it is recommended that it be dropped from at least one inch above the ground or growing object.

What I Don’t Love
                The above changes do help simplify and standardize the Rules for relief, but I do wish we could have gone further in some areas:
  •          One of the greatest confusions about dropping still exists – when to use 20 inches and when to use 80 inches. I would like to see one standard distance. My preference is for one club-length attained by using any readily available club other than a putter, which would guarantee 95% of the time using a 45-46 inch driver. If club-lengths are now off the table, I would be in favor of a standard 40 inches. Because I’m increasing the size of the relief area I would recommend requiring players to stand upright to drop the ball.
  •            I’m actually in favor of placing the ball all around, but understand the importance of the drop and the randomness it provides to guarantee someone doesn’t take advantage of the relief Rules.
  •       I’d like to see the penalties for improper dropping (both manner and person) go away. So long as the ball is dropped and it ends up being played from within the proper relief area, why does it matter how it got there or who dropped it? If the player plays the ball from the proper spot, this seems like a penalty that doesn’t fit the potential advantage gained.
  •          Unlimited drops when the ball does not stay in the relief area. I realize on one hand, this gets rid of the problem for players who don’t know better and drop the ball a third time. On the other hand, if I’m an official in the situation, how do I tell a player to stop dropping and place the ball? We need to stick to the two drops and place, I think most golfers who attempt to know the Rules understand this concept.

Relaxed Rules for Penalty Areas and Bunkers

What I Love
                I think it’s great that there is no longer a penalty for grounding your club or touching or moving loose impediments in a penalty area or bunker (although touching sand near ball to play from a bunker still prohibited). While I’ve always understood the potential advantage gained, I’ve always felt the Rule resulted in some very unfair penalties:
  •         Penalty areas can now be determined by Committees regardless of whether they are water features. So the previously prohibited “desert rule” or “jungle rule” could now be enacted with deserts or jungles being marked as penalty areas. This is simply a pace of play time saver but also gives some more latitude to Committees on how they mark a course.
  •          I know Brian Davis and Michelle Wie would love this Rule to have been around a few years ago, but relaxing the penalty for touching or moving loose impediments just takes care of the situations where no real advantage was gained. Just ticking a loose leaf in the backswing shouldn’t cost you two strokes or a loss of hole.

What I Don’t Love
                I just want to see this relaxation go a tiny bit further. The USGA has presented a good summary of the reasons for leaving some of the bunker prohibitions in place http://www.usga.org/content/usga/home-page/rules-hub/rules-modernization/major-proposed-changes/proposed-change--moving-or-touching-loose-impediments-or-touchin.html but I offer an alternative view and proposal below:
  •          Why still prohibit touching sand in a bunker by the ball (literally in front of or behind or for testing)? As long as the conditions are not improved by lightly grounding the club and the player doesn’t deliberately clear sand behind the ball during the backswing, why is this still a penalty? The player still needs to make the stroke, and I think 2012 at Kiawah Island shows that there is no advantage to permitting players to ground their clubs in playing the stroke or take practice swings in bunkers. 
  •       I understand that bunkers are design features that are intended to pose a specific challenge to a golfer, and that the Rules are in place to maintain that challenge.  My argument is that allowing practice swings and grounding the club lightly do not affect the challenge significantly enough for the vast majority of golfers to warrant treating penalty areas more favorably than bunkers. The USGA argument I do agree could be a problem, is displaced sand. Compromise Proposal: Prohibit practice swings that touch the sand in the bunker, but there is no penalty if the sand is touched accidentally during the practice swing. I would even be okay with prohibiting touching the sand with the club behind the ball provided there is an added stipulation that no penalty be applied if the sand is inadvertently touched.
  •          The proposed Rules offer a ball unplayable relief option to get out of a bunker. This is fantastic. BUT, it’s an option that costs two strokes to use.  Not only is the difference between one-stroke and two-stroke options adding unnecessary complexity, but it only costs one stroke to get out of a penalty area why should it cost more than one stroke to get out of a bunker?

The Flagstick

What I Love
                All in all, current Rule 17 is just downright confusing. There are tons of Notes, Exceptions and internally defined terms that lead to most people left completely clueless regarding what should be some simple permissions. The proposed Rules regarding the flagstick greatly simplify the flagstick and penalties affiliated with issues:
  •         No penalty for striking an attended flagstick, attendant or unattended flagstick after a stroke from the putting green. As long as the deflection is not intentional, this always seemed to be an unnecessary penalty.
  •          Penalties for the unauthorized attendance or attending the flagstick while the ball is in motion now are clearly based on intent. If the attendance is not intended to influence to movement of the ball (“must not deliberately attend or remove the flagstick to affect where the player’s ball might come to rest”), then the penalty does not apply.

What I Don’t Love
                I don’t like that we need a flagstick Rule that has penalties to begin with. It can still get complicated but at least we’re basing the penalty on intent, not action, so that unintended unauthorized removal does not unfairly penalize a player:
  •          Couldn’t all the flagstick penalties affiliated with influencing the movement of the ball be taken care of by one Rule? Or should flagstick attendance penalties be based on result (only if a deliberate action results in the ball being stopped or deflected)? I think current Rule 1-2 could’ve been used in a way to take care of all the influence the movement type situations, despite the drawbacks of the Rule in its current form.

Multiple Books

What I Love
                I am fully behind the concept of a player’s book that can give the player in a competition or a casual round a quick reference guide how to proceed correctly under the Rules.

What I Don’t Love
                One of the greatest things about the Rules of Golf is that player, referee administrator and governing body are all looking at the exact same reference. If I have to penalize a player or tell a player to proceed differently than he would like, I can point to something in the same book he’s got. I have some concerns with separating this all out:
  •          Where are the Local Rules? Associations and clubs alike are still going to want to create Hard Cards, the standard Local Rules for all competitions. Typically, clauses could read “the Local Rule in Appendix I is in effect.” Any player can find that Local Rule in their own Rule book.  The proposed multi-book format does not appear to provide that same comfort, meaning I could have Local Rules in effect that a player will need to carry multiple books in order to have all the Rules at his fingertips.
  •          As a tournament administrator, I love that I have all the Rules guidance I need to conduct a competition in one book, - the Decisions book. I have no issue with getting rid of the Decisions book in its current format, but I want one book that gives me all the Rules guidance I need and can point to. For the same reason I hate flipping back and forth between Rules 6 and 33 during Rules school the last couple years, I do not want to be flipping back and forth between multiple books when discussing an issue with the Committee.

There is a lot more to the proposed New Rules of Golf and I strongly urge all of you to view all the available resources you can for yourself at usga.org and to contact your state or regional golf association for assistance in understanding the new Rules or the process. Utilize the feedback section so that the governing bodies have as much information and feedback to go by as possible. The proposed Rules are not final and it is still possible that some wonderful changes we are all hoping for may come to fruition, or that changes we don’t like that are now present may go away. But the Rules of Golf Committees can only make those decisions if you give your feedback. Just make sure to do your homework first!


  1. These are, not unexpectedly, thoughtful and good remarks. I only perused them but generally agree with all of them. Good job.

  2. A couple of thoughts about your thoughts:

    1. A willingness to enforce the 40 second playing suggestion in some way (warning, then penalties), would go a long way to alleviating our concerns about putting green damage repair. They can repair at will so long as they do it within 40 seconds of their ability to make a putting stroke.

    2. If you want unplayable relief from a bunker to only cost one stroke (as with a WH) why not forbid unplayable relief in a bunker similar to WH? Why can't bunkers be penalty areas? One can still play it as it lies especially if your touching the sand suggestions are feasible and undertaken.