USGA and R&A Announce Golf Rules Modernization Initiative

In case you don’t watch golf, the USGA took a lot of heat for a pretty dumb ruling in last year’s US Open. Here’s what happened:

The ball moved back slightly and USGA determined that he “more likely than not” caused the ball to move and assessed a one-stroke penalty. Despite his honest testimony that he was entirely unsure of whether or not his actions caused the ball to move, DJ still got an extra stroke that could have cost him the US Open. The USGA, along with their European counterparts: the R&A, have been hard at work to “modernize” the rules of golf. Anyone who plays, whether a Tour Pro or Saturday public course hero, knows the rules of golf are complicated. So much so that there are Rules Officials around the course at pro tournaments and they are constantly called in to check out lies and provide insight as to whether or not the ball lies in a hazard. A lot of these rules are poorly worded, slow down play, or are simply unfair. The USGA and R&A announced a series a rule changes if effort to clear things up. Let’s take a look at the changes:

(Golf Channel) – Determining whether a player caused his ball to move had been a hot topic before last year’s U.S. Open, but the issue received even more scrutiny when the USGA ruled that Dustin Johnson was “more likely than not,” or 51 percent certain, to have caused his ball to move slightly on Oakmont’s super-fast greens. The ensuing chaos (and one-shot penalty after the round) didn’t affect the outcome, but afterward players and fans blasted the USGA for issuing what was perceived as an unfair ruling. Now, under proposed Rule 9.2, there is a new standard: A player will be penalized only when it is known, or virtually certain (at least 95 percent), that he caused the ball to move, which should eliminate many of the questionable calls. Once cleared, a player will be allowed to replace the ball on its estimated original spot.

Percentages aside, this is pretty straight forward. If it’s obvious you touched the ball, a penalty stroke is assessed. None of this “more likely than not” crap. Golf is all about the honor system but on a super-fast green it can be nearly impossible to tell if you caused the ball to move or not–glad this rule can cut you some slack.

One of the most radical proposals is that a player will be allowed to ground his club everywhere except a bunker. By allowing a player to touch the ground with his club and move loose impediments in the penalty area, Proposed Rule 17 would eliminate the unintentional infraction that could be detected only after replay, such as when Carl Pettersson, standing in a lateral water hazard, brushed a leaf with his backswing at the 2012 PGA Championship. The next rulebook will feature the term “penalty area,” not “hazard.”

Here is the most common example of a player calling over a rules official to determine if a patch of ground is a hazard or not. Dustin Johnson also lost out on a chance to force a playoff in the 2010 PGA because of this rule. Again, a good rule to clear things up.

The rule change that could most significantly affect week-to-week competition is that players now will be allowed to repair any damage on the greens, including spike marks. Previously, players were allowed to fix only ball marks in their lines. In 2013, European Tour player Simon Dyson was embroiled in a cheating scandal after he tapped down a spike mark during an event. He claimed that he wasn’t trying to gain a competitive advantage, but he still was placed on probation. Now, under Rule 13.1b(1), players could try to create as smooth a surface as possible to roll their putts.

This just seems like good courtesy for the groups behind you.

There will also be a new reasonable judgment standard, Rule 1.3a(2), in regard to estimating a line, drop or distance. With the new rule, a player would need only to do “all that could reasonably be expected under the circumstances” to accurately measure the spot. A recent example: Tiger Woods’ controversial drop en route to a victory at the 2013 Players. After finding the water off the 14th tee, Woods discussed where his ball crossed the hazard with his fellow playing competitor, Casey Wittenberg, and his caddie. The group agreed that the ball hooked into the water farther down the fairway, even though video replays suggested it was closer to the tee box. Woods was not penalized, but the PGA Tour felt compelled to issue a statement about the incident. Under the new rule, which relies on the integrity of the player, Woods would still be absolved.

Again, golf heavily uses the honor system. Makes sense.

Some of the other proposed changes:

• Instead of dropping a ball at shoulder height, players can release the ball at any height above one inch. The area in which players are allowed relief is also expanded; rather than one or two club-lengths, there is now a defined relief area of 20 inches (cart paths, ground under repair, etc.) to 80 inches (unplayable lie, penalty area drops).

Extending relief will help the casual golfer more than the pros. Most casuals have been doing this anyway using the phrase “taking relief” as a way of life.

•Caddies cannot stand behind a player and help with alignment while the player takes a stance – a move that is most common in the LPGA, including with world No. 1 Lydia Ko.

I like this rule. Figure out where you’re aiming yourself, that’s Golf 101.

•A player won’t be penalized if his ball accidently deflects off him. That’s what happened to Jeff Maggert in the 2003 Masters. Leading by two entering the final round, he received a two-shot penalty after his shot hit the lip of the bunker and rebounded off his body. He made triple bogey and finished fifth. Five years later, the penalty for an accidental deflection was reduced from two shots to one. Now, it is eliminated altogether, a nod to the unpredictability of the act and the inherent disadvantage if it occurred.

There’s already enough shame in being hit by a ball the comes back at you. A penalty stroke literally adds insult to injury.

•The search time for lost balls is three minutes, not five.

Speeding up play. Easy area to trim fat off a slow round.

•Players can move loose impediments in a bunker. There still is a penalty if a player (a) touches the sand to test the surface, or (b) touches the sand when making a backswing – the penalty that cost Anna Nordqvist a chance to win last year’s U.S. Women’s Open.

Not a HUGE change but making bunker shots a bit easier–that’s important on the amateur side.

•Damaged clubs can be used in competition, even if the equipment was damaged in a fit of rage. Previously, only those clubs that were damaged in the “normal course of play” could still be used, so if, for instance, a player slammed his putter in disgust and bent the shaft, he would have no choice but to putt with a wedge or fairway wood for the remainder of the round.

Golf embracing the Happy Gilmore style of a rage burst. I like it. Probably makes a huge difference in most Country Club’s Men’s Championship tournaments.

•Players are entitled to free relief from an embedded lie anywhere (save for the bunker), unless limited to the fairway by a local rule.

A rule that may be taken a little too liberally by casuals in fescue areas but it’s another rule to speed things up and make golf a little more fun.

•Rangefinders can be used to measure distances, except when prohibited by a local rule. It was not immediately known whether the pro tours would enforce that local rule, with players and caddies still responsible for calculating their own yardages.


•Committees are encouraged to mark more hazards with red stakes, not yellow, to allow lateral relief.

Similar to the free relief above, this is designed to speed things up and easier for the casuals. Hazard stakes are always a point of contention in a casual round with your buddy who knows the rules inside and out so now this should help relieve that a bit.

•In an attempt to improve pace of play at the recreational level, the governing bodies are encouraging ready golf; allowing putts to be holed with the flagstick in; and recommending an alternative form of stroke play with a double-par maximum score.

Most courses recommend “ready golf anyway but putting with the flagstick in is a HUGE change. Of course, you’re not going to see it on the PGA Tour but it will slowly but surely cut down time on a casual round.

Most of the rules announced here shouldn’t change the  professional game immensely but the impact should be felt at that level. The “modernization” builds on the USGA’s continuous efforts to make golf a quicker game and now, a little easier to play. I think it’s an exciting change that could help the sport stick with my buddies who aren’t as skilled. I’m not sure it’ll attract new players by itself but it can certainly improve the staying power. What do you think? Let me know in the comments…


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