USGA, R&A finds common ground with everyday golfers in making new rules for 2019

New 2019 Golf Rules Marc Leishman, left, and Rickie Fowler repair ball marks on a green at the BMW Championship. Under the new rules, players will be able to repair other imperfections on the greens. PGA TOUR/Keyur Khamar

USGA, R&A finds common ground with everyday golfers in making new rules for 2019

Golf

USGA, R&A finds common ground with everyday golfers in making new rules for 2019

The U.S. Golf Association and R&A, perhaps unfairly, sometimes are caricatured as rigid elitists by many who play golf.

But in their sweeping overhaul of the Rules of Golf, the game’s governing bodies showed themselves to be open, transparent and flexible, and also attuned and sympathetic to the plight of mid-and high-handicappers.

That was reflected in numerous rules changes, including: a local rule dealing with balls that are lost or OB; establishing the ability to set a “maximum score”; sanctioning the use of distance-measuring devices; reducing or eliminating some penalties; encouraging “ready golf”; providing a means for poor players to extricate themselves from bunkers; and allowing players to move loose impediments in bunkers. It’s also reflected in a condensed rule book – 24 rules, down from 34 – that contains less-tortured language, and also supporting videos and other materials that are easily consumed.

“Without blowing up the rules, they’ve done a wonderful job of maintaining the integrity of golf and yet made things more consistent throughout the course and reduced penalties that frankly seem a little unfair in many people’s eyes,” said Bill Linneman, director of rules and competitions for the Wisconsin Golf Association.

The USGA and R&A didn’t just meet everyday golfers halfway; they embraced them in a big bear hug. The result, said Ryan Farb, the Northern California Golf Association’s director of rules and competitions, is “The everyday player is going to end up playing by the rules by default a lot more than they used to.”

The new Rules of Golf go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.

“The rules are very cumbersome right now, and there might be a sense among daily-fee players that they’re not going to play by any rules,” said Mike McAneny, tournament director for the New Jersey State Golf Association. “Now that they’re simpler and easier to understand, they might be more apt to play by some sort of uniform Rules of Golf.”

The change expected to have the biggest impact on day-to-day play is a local rule that is an alternative to stroke-and-distance relief. On lost or OB balls, players can take two penalty strokes and drop a ball on the edge of the fairway, not closer to the hole. After a lost tee ball, for example, they would be playing their fourth shot after the drop instead of returning to the tee.

“Drop your ball, take your penalty and go,” said Cameron Crawford, senior tournament director for the Texas Golf Association. “Most people are playing by that rule. The USGA just gave structure to that.”

: A new local rule will allow players, after a ball is lost or OB, to drop a ball on the edge of the fairway no nearer the hole with a two-shot penalty. Getty Images/Mike Ehrmann

A new local rule will allow players, after a ball is lost or OB, to drop a ball on the edge of the fairway no nearer the hole with a two-shot penalty. (Getty Images/Mike Ehrmann)

“It’s more practical for the everyday golfer and it’s stuff they already do, so the rules are just reacting to that,” said Rusty Harder, director of rules and competitions for the Carolinas Golf Association.

This local rule is a personal favorite of Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director, Rules of Golf and amateur status. He said it “replicates (the penalty) … under stroke and distance,” while achieving a secondary objective: “How can we keep golfers moving forward?”

“The impact on pace of play, the impact on the everyday golfer, is going to be huge,” said Doug Hoffmann, rules and competitions director for the Minnesota Golf Association.

Pagel called pace of play a “secondary objective” of rules modernization, but it always was on the rules makers’ minds. Hoffmann pointed to a new rule allowing players to putt without removing the flagstick, and another that allows players to set a “maximum score.” Another cuts the search time for lost balls from five minutes to three, but players won’t be penalized if they accidentally move a ball during a search. And yet another allows players to take a drop out of a bunker with a two-stroke penalty.

“Some people could be in a bunker forever,” Hoffmann said.

The governing bodies also took mercy on perpetrators of the dreaded hosel rockets, snipe hooks and other operator errors that might lead
to ricochets. There will be no penalties for shots that strike equipment, carts, players or caddies, or even the player who struck the shot (think Jeff Maggert on No. 3 at the 2003 Masters). There also is no penalty for a double hit (think T.C. Chen).

“They have lessened the penalties for situations where it was not deserved – hitting yourself, hitting your equipment, hitting your opponent or your opponent’s equipment,” said Darin Green, director of rules and competitions at the Florida State Golf Association. “If that happens, most likely the player hit a bad golf shot, and why are we going to penalize that player in those situations?”

One issue on which there was some dissent was the rule that will allow players to repair spike marks and other impairments on the greens. Some rules experts, such as Jeff Ninnemann, director of rules and competitions at the Southern California Golf Association, embraced that change.

“I’m totally for that,” Ninnemann said. Whenever he has heard objections to tapping  down spike marks, he said, “None of that made sense to me. I’m all for considering the putting green hallowed ground.”

“The putting green is specifically manicured for the ball to be rolled across the ground,” said Nickolas Scillia, director of rules and competitions for the Chicago District Golf Association. “It’s a good thing for any irregularities to be fixed.” Harder agrees: “If you can fix a ball mark, you might as well let them fix everything.”

Those opinions were shared by most rules experts contacted by Golfweek, though Hoffmann said it “drives me nuts” when Tour players tap down imperfections on the greens. Linneman said this change is “probably the hardest pill to swallow” for traditionalists. He added that he’s heard some players joke that they’re going to request the last tee time in tournaments “so they can build a trough to every hole.” Farb said he has some concerns, particularly in tournaments, that this could slow down play, offsetting potential gains made with other rules changes.

New Golf Rules 2019 Henric Sturehed watches Jon Rahm take a drop at the Spanish Open. Under the new rules, players will drop from knee height instead of shoulder height.

New Golf Rules 2019 Henric Sturehed watches Jon Rahm take a drop at the Spanish Open. Under the new rules, players will drop from knee height instead of shoulder height. (Getty Images)

Pagel described the change as an effort to “level the playing field” on the greens, noting that it’s proper etiquette for players to repair spike marks before leaving the green. He’s heard the concerns about this change but said, “We have rules to address this. If a player is taking two minutes to tidy up, let’s have the pace of play rule go into effect. If a player does more than what’s reasonably needed, they’ve improved their lie, so let’s let that rule take effect.”

The USGA and R&A introduced the proposed rules changes in March 2017, then opened the process to public comment. That wasn’t window dressing. They fielded more than 30,000 pieces of feedback from 102 countries and conducted online focus groups in seven countries before releasing the final draft in March.

That feedback had a tangible impact. One initial proposal would have allowed players to drop from just above ground height. Some feedback called for keeping it at shoulder height, while other rules experts, such as Linneman, would have done away with dropping altogether.

“If there was one thing I probably would have changed, it would have been to allow players to place a ball when taking relief, whether penalized or free drops,” he said. “By removing dropping, you would have removed re-dropping.”

Pagel called this issue “one of the more fascinating conversations we had over the seven-plus years” of the rules modernization project. Eventually, the governing bodies decided to allow dropping from knee height to maintain some level of randomness.

Pagel said the “primary proof” that the governing bodies were listening to feedback was their decision to abandon a plan to measure relief areas by fixed distances of 20 inches or 80 inches.

“The loudest voice we heard (during the comment period) had to do with the size of the drop area,” Pagel said. “We heard it loud, we heard it clear. They said, ‘I carry 14 clubs with me. It’s easy to measure with clubs. I’d like to continue to measure with clubs.’” So the final rules reverted to using one or two club lengths to measure relief.

“The way (the USGA and R&A) handled it was quite refreshing,” Green said. “I liked that they were out openly discussing the changes. They didn’t just drop the final changes on us. The feedback process was good, and it worked. They listened to the feedback and adjusted to it.” Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the May 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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