Changes to Rules of Golf unify the world of golfers

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Finally, golf’s official rulebook will look the same in golfing countries around the world.

On Oct. 24, the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A, announced identical formatting worldwide for the newest Rules of Golf, the 2012-2015 edition.

In anticipation of golf’s return to the Olympic Games in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro, the layout and format of the Rules of Golf will be the same in every country. For example, the content of page 62 in the United States will match the content on page 62 in Britain or Asia or South America. All will contain identical rules, illustrations and photographs.

The only differences will be in the native languages.

This is unprecedented for golf. In the past, the rules were the same around the world, but individual countries or golf associations often created their own layouts and formats.

The rulebook is reissued every four years by the USGA and R&A, the two governing and rules-making bodies that oversee golf around the globe. This time, they vowed to produce a uniform rulebook.

“Well, it may sound easy, but it wasn’t,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s director of the Rules of Golf. “It was complicated and difficult, and it took a lot of time to get it done properly.”

In the past, the USGA occasionally reprinted the Rules of Golf every two years. There is a 2010-2011 edition of the rulebook, although it is the same as the previous printing. The only change is the title.

Pagel affirmed there will be no more two-year editions. All new rulebooks will read 2012-2015 to support public recognition of the four-year rules cycle. However, the comprehensive Decisions on the Rules of Golf will continue to be published every two years (the 2012-2013 edition will be available in November).

Two rules changes are likely to catch the attention of avid golfers:

Rule 13-4, “Ball in Hazard; Prohibited Actions”: Exception 2 to the rule has been amended to permit a player to smooth sand or soil in a hazard at any time, including before playing from that hazard. This assumes that such a smoothing action is done for the sole purpose of maintaining or caring for the course.

The change will allow a player or caddie retrieving a rake to smooth his or her footprints before the player makes a stroke from the bunker. According to the official USGA explanation, “the revision will save time and is practical in the sense that it will continue to encourage players to practice good etiquette.”

Rule 18-2b, “Ball Moving After Address”: In regard to a ball moving after it has been addressed by a player, a new exception has been added to exonerate the player from penalty if “it is known or virtually certain that he did not cause the ball to move.”

The obvious example is a gust of wind causing the ball to move. There is now no penalty, but the ball must be played from its new position (after it stops moving).

In the past, a player was penalized one stroke and the ball had to be replaced in its original position.

This new rule seems certain to cause some confusion, because the USGA explanation states, “if a player’s ball moves after address on a windless day he will still be subject to penalty under Rule 18-2b.”

The alteration of any rule often is a reflection of real-life situations, and two come to mind in regard to these two rules changes. Coincidentally, both occurred at the Zurich Classic on the PGA Tour.

In the 2011 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, Webb Simpson was challenging for his first PGA Tour title. Standing on the 15th green on Sunday, he held a one-stroke lead. As he prepared to tap in a 1-foot par putt, his ball moved. Simpson was penalized one stroke, and ultimately he lost a sudden-death playoff to Bubba Watson.

Simpson thought the culprit was a combination of wind and firm, crusty greens. He said he had been victimized by a “bad rule.”

At the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, Simpson amplified his position. “I’m obviously happy that it is being changed,” he said. “I think it should have already been moved before this. It’s a rule that 100 percent of PGA Tour players would agree that should be changed. They all would agree it was a bad rule. So I’m happy it’s changing.”

The assumption is that Simpson, in a similar situation, would not be penalized under the new rule. “If some other agency – wind or gravity – is known to cause that ball to move, no penalty would be applied,” USGA vice president Tom O’Toole said earlier this year when he revealed the ruling bodies were looking at a possible change to the rule.

In the 2008 Zurich Classic, Stewart Cink was disqualified because as a consequence of Rule 13-4. Cink, with his ball resting on grass, had to stand in a fairway bunker to hit the shot. The ball flew into a greenside bunker.

Meanwhile, his caddie raked the fairway bunker. Under the old rule, that should have been a two-stroke penalty – for testing the surface of one bunker while his ball was in another bunker – although Cink didn’t know it. He signed his scorecard without the penalty.

Later, he was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. The outcry from players and fans was enormous.

“I think the changes will be well-received,” Pagel said. “The changes are fair. They make sense. I don’t see any controversy.”

Among other rules changes that will go into effect next year:

Definition of addressing the ball: The definition is being amended so that a player has addressed the ball simply by grounding his club immediately in front of or behind the ball, regardless of whether or not he has taken his stance.

Searching for a ball: Rule 12-1 is being amended to permit a player to search for his ball anywhere on the course when it may be covered by sand and to clarify that there is no penalty if the ball is moved in these circumstances. However, if a ball in a hazard is moved when covered by loose impediments (leaves), there is a penalty of one stroke.

Arriving late for a starting time: What was previously a local rule is now a fixed part of the rules. For a player starting late, but within five minutes of his starting time, the penalty will be reduced from disqualification to loss of the first hole in match play or two strokes at the first hole in stroke play.

Hole-in-one prizes for amateurs: The R&A has joined the USGA in exempting hole-in-one prizes from the stipulated prize limits for amateurs. This does not apply to long-drive or closest-to-the-pin prizes.

Subsistence expenses for amateurs: A new rule allows an amateur golfer to receive subsistence expenses to assist with general living costs, provided the expenses are approved by and paid through the player’s national golf union or association.

The argument could be made that 2012 will be a landmark year for the Rules of Golf, considering the standardization of worldwide rulebooks and the growing importance of the rules as golf officials worldwide prepare for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

It was 1952 when the USGA and R&A decided formally to move toward unification of the Rules of Golf.

That is, the two governing bodies of golf agreed to talk regularly about the rules and produce a joint rules code while maintaining their differences if absolutely necessary.

In nearly 60 years since that major step toward rules unification, the two bodies have grown dramatically more hospitable toward each other. The rules have become more and more uniform.

Sure, there have been disagreements, such as the 1998 coefficient of restitution debacle, in which the USGA decided to limit spring-like effect in the face of drivers and the R&A declined for several years to join the USGA.

In general, though, golf has moved ever closer to a one-world, one-rulebook reality.

The 2012-2015 Rules of Golf is the culmination of this effort.

– Jeff Rude contributed

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