They unveiled, they listened, and the governing bodies did not budge on one of the most requested rule changes: relief from divots.
Chalk this up to a win for the all-important “play it as it lies” principle, the most vital tenet of golf’s rules. But do not expect this to be the last time divot-relief is scrutinized. There is good reason to believe the adoption of several changes will force the U.S. Golf Association and R&A to cave on the divot matter.
More than any other annoyance in the sport, seeing a ball finish in divots of differing recovery stages can be an aggravating though generally rare occurrence given the number of shots struck.
At courses with big maintenance budgets and carts armed with sand bottles, the issue gets trickier when an old divot blatantly becomes ground under repair, particularly when players can spot seeds in the mix. The divot issue is generally more acute for American golfers who play an aerial game, making the recovery shot more painful than on a links, where fewer forced carries mean golfers more easily can advance the ball to the hole via the ground.
According to the rules experts who put an incredible amount of time into this simplification effort and who deserve our gratitude for listening as never before, the divot issue was cited heavily during the feedback period. Even as the golfing public successfully lobbied for a monumental change in the stroke and distance rules, the rules experts – gulp – dug deep when it came to considering divots as ground under repair.
“Fundamental to playing the game is playing the ball as it lies,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director for the Rules of Golf and amateur status. “We think if we were to provide relief in that situation, that would really challenge that principle.”
Kudos to the governing bodies for defending the most timeless principle of golf before anyone ever put pen to paper and wrote the first rules in 1744. Protecting “play it as it lies” has been fundamental to all who have taken on the often unpopular job of writing and enforcing golf’s seemingly strict rules. But playing the ball as we find it seems destined to come under challenge when the new rules are put in place because of other changes for 2019 and beyond.
The first time a golfer removes a loose impediment in a hazard or spends a minute tapping down all the spike marks in their line, they aren’t exactly playing the ball as it lies. And certainly the next time a golfer decides a lie in the bunker is unplayable and drops outside the sand – under a two-stroke penalty – other members of a foursome will undoubtedly wonder: Why can’t I get relief from a divot that is under repair?
In nobly trying to eliminate some of the stranger rules likely born out of overly protecting play it as it lies, the USGA and R&A may have opened the door to inconsistency questions and concerns. Overall, the mission to simplify and clarify the rules appears to have been a successful one that most golfers will appreciate. And maybe the real fault in all of this divot nonsense has nothing to do with the rules and all to do with the remarkable course-conditioning efforts across the world.
That’s right, perhaps the incredible talent and dedication of modern golf course maintenance crews has so spoiled golfers that the occasional bad break has become the stuff of life-altering tragedy. In which case, golfers need to suck it up, deal with the divots and be grateful we have so many talented humans looking out for our rules and our courses. Gwk
(Note: This column appeared in the May 2018 issue of Golfweek.)