Thoughts on Golf’s New Rules

By | March 14, 2018

Golf’s New Rules – via USGA.org

First, golf is an inherently complicated sport. It is played outdoors in all types of weather, on non-standardized fields of play found in almost every type of landscape and human environment on the planet, and with people, animals, vehicles and a great many other objects regularly in the way. The game’s bedrock principles are simple – you are to play a ball from the tee until it ends up in the hole, and to play the ball as it lies and the course as you find it. But the number and range of things that can happen to a golf ball and a golfer during play are almost infinite. The result is a need for many reasonable exceptions to these principles and for procedures telling the player what can or must be done in a wide range of situations that inevitably arise. This leads to longer and more detailed Rules, as players understandably expect answers to all such situations.

Second, there is often a tension between pursuing simplicity (which may lead towards having absolute rules that are easy to apply but may produce outcomes that sometimes seem wrong or unfair) versus trying to achieve “fair” and “right” results (which may lead towards having exceptions and more complicated doctrines so that slightly different factual scenarios can have different outcomes). Some changes (such as elimination of certain prohibitions and penalties) may help achieve both objectives, but other changes necessarily go in one direction or the other. Our overriding goals in balancing these considerations were to do what seems best from the standpoint of all golfers and to preserve the fundamental challenge and essence of the game.

The revised Rules of Golf are here and are scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2019. One of the primary objectives of these rule changes is to make the game feel more friendly yet still fair and reasonable. Let’s take a closer look at some of the changes and see how they might make the game better.

Ball at Rest

At the core of this set of revisions, the intent is clear. The rules needed to allow a bit more room for innocent human error. Hit your ball during a practice stroke on the green? No problem. Put it back where it started and move on with no penalty. Move your ball when trying to find it in the rough? Put it back where it started and move on with no penalty.

Off of the green, there is still a penalty for moving the ball but only if there is a “95% certainty” that the player caused the ball to move with their actions.

A player, opponent or outside influence will be found to have caused the ball to move if the player, opponent or outside influence was known or virtually certain to have caused it to move; otherwise it will be assumed that natural forces caused it to move.

Bottom line, let’s give folks the benefit of the doubt as much as possible and keep the game moving. Nice.

Ball in Motion Accidentally Deflected

Just as there is no penalty in stroke play if one player (or his or her equipment or caddie) accidentally deflects another player’s ball, there is no need for a penalty when a player (or the player’s equipment or caddie) accidentally deflects his or her own ball.

The key here is “accidentally” of course. So, no setting your bag strategically to keep that thinned bunker shot from rolling through the green and into the lake. There are rules that also allow for a ball bouncing back into the player or even if you get that dreaded double strike on a chip. Play the ball as it lies but no additional stroke to add insult to injury. This should make for some interesting arguments about intent but otherwise, all seem like reasonable changes.

Taking Relief

Here is where we see a lot of tweaks to the rules including how to measure where the points of relief are and how to drop the ball to put it back into play.

There was talk when the new rules were first proposed of allowing a player to drop the ball very close to the ground as opposed to the current standard of shoulder height at arm’s length. Anyone else remember when we used to have to drop them over a shoulder? A compromise somewhere in the middle has been made. You now will drop the ball into the proper relief area from knee height. The idea is that knee height will still keep your new lie acceptably random while reducing the need for a re-drop if the ball moves outside of the designated relief area.

Also covered in this section is a revision to the rules around embedded balls. You will now be able to take relief from an embedded ball anywhere “in the general area” except in the sand.

This is an appropriate exception to the principle of playing the ball as it lies because having to play a ball that is stuck in soft or wet ground (whether in the fairway or the rough) should not be considered part of the normal challenge of playing a course.

The rules around when you are allowed to put a new ball into play have been clarified in this section as well. You can now put a new ball into play anytime you are taking relief whether it is due to a penalty or not.

There’s a lot going on in this part of the revisions and will require some study, but again, the intent here is to clarify, simplify, and keep the game moving.

Areas of the Course

Changes here include the much talked about ability to repair nearly all damage on a green.

This Rule change will eliminate the frequent questions among players and referees about whether a particular area of damage on the green is a ball-mark that may be repaired or is a shoe mark or other damage that must not be repaired.

The concern has been noted that allowing repair of all damage on the putting green could slow down play if players try to repair too many areas; but we believe this is unlikely to be true for most players and that the Rule against unreasonable delay (as well as a Committee’s pace of play policy) can be used to address situations where a player seeks to make excessive repairs.

I can see both sides of this issue. One the one hand, it seems totally reasonable to allow for not having to play on a green that someone or something else has damaged. On the other hand, while the “Committee’s pace of play policy” might keep things moving along during structured play, I fear for the player out at the local muni waiting as the guy in front of him carefully grooms every inch of a 50-foot putt with no active ranger in sight.

In this section, we also see the official removal of the penalty for hitting the flag while putting.

Allowing a player to putt with the flagstick in the hole without fear of penalty should generally help speed up play. When the players do not have caddies, the current Rule can result in considerable delay. On balance it is expected that there should be no advantage in being able to putt with the unattended flagstick in the hole:

In some cases, the ball may strike the flagstick and bounce out of the hole when it might otherwise have been holed, and

In other cases, the ball may hit the flagstick and finish in the hole when it might otherwise have missed.

Clearly meant as some effort to speed up play, this one seems odd simply because I’ve almost never seen the old rule enforced during casual play. This is more of a “we know nearly everyone already does this anyway” rule change. But, how often will casual golfers leave the flag in, have it bounce out of the hole, and then count it as holed? This rule feels more like it simply reverses how some casual players will ignore it in the future.

Equipment

Get upset and bend your putter? Wrap your 5-iron around a tree trying to get out of trouble? Not a problem anymore. Do your best to straighten it back out, or don’t, and play on. The penalty for playing with damaged equipment is gone.

This potential downside from a player’s perspective is outweighed by the ability to use or repair any damaged club, as well as by the significant simplification that results.

Also, you can officially use what the rules refer to as a distance measuring device, or DMD, during your round unless a local rule specifically says you can’t. Were you surprised that the old rule says you couldn’t use your DMD unless a local rule specifically allowed for it? Me too.

Playing the Ball

Most often seen on the LPGA Tour, your caddie will no longer be able to stand behind you to help get you lined up before play.

Although a player may get advice from a caddie on the shot to be played, the line of play and similar matters, the ability to line up one’s feet and body accurately to a target line is a fundamental skill of the game for which the player alone should be responsible.

Once a player steps in to take their stance the caddie needs to already be off of the line of the shot. How much this affects players that have grown reliant on this alignment aide will have to be seen. Expect to hear some grumbling on this one though.

Covered here too, the rules now clarify that it is okay for your caddie to mark, lift and clean your ball for you when it’s on the green without needing your specific permission. They can only replace the ball for you if they were the one who marked and lifted it in the first place. Not an issue I believe most of us run into that often, but, someone thinks this will help the pace of play for somebody, so I’m okay with it I guess.

When to Play During a Round

Here we get into changes specifically intended to speed up play. Ready golf is now recommended as the standard during stroke-play events. Also, it is recommended that players “should” hit their shot within 40-seconds.

Enforcing pace of play will continue to be primarily up to each Committee, as there are limits to what the Rules themselves can do to insist that players play promptly.

In other words, while the rules encourage faster play, it will still be up to individual committees to determine what is slow play and what if any penalties will be issued for slow play.

There are dozens of other rule changes including how penalty areas are enforced, grounding your club in hazards (it’s allowed now), changes to the maximum number of strokes allowed on a hole (it’s up to the local committee), and even rules around player behavior. We’re all going to have to do some reading and talking to get everything straight. With any change will inevitably come confusion and frustration but I like the spirit in which these changes were made.

So, ready or not, here come the new rules. Well, at least in a little more than 9-months, here they come. How successful the new rules are in accomplishing the goals they were crafted to meet will have to be seen once the millions of golfers who love this game put them into play.

But, really, don’t most of us have our own set of “local rules” that we play with to keep the game fun already? What about the mulligan? Who hasn’t taken a gimmie from time to time? Few of us are actually going back to the tee when we lose a ball unexpectedly, are we?

The changes to the rules are fine for when the rules are necessary. I think, for most of us, we’re going to be just fine continuing to find our own way, and enjoying the game in our own way, just like we already have been for a long time.