Among the 87 changes to the Decisions on the Rules of Golf that took effect on Jan. 1 is a new decision that technology alone cannot provide enough evidence to convict a golfer of violating Rule 18 (ball at rest moved). Here's what else you need to know:
1. HIGH-DEF GOLF
Your ball is deemed to have moved only if that movement was reasonably discernible to the naked eye at the time of the incident, the USGA and R&A announced as part of their biennial changes to the Decisions on the Rules of Golf. Golfers will not be penalized for accidentally moving a ball in cases when the use of technology such as high-def cameras and digital-recording devices would have been needed to determine if the ball came to rest in a new position (DECISION 18/4). Golf's governing bodies reached this conclusion after realizing that modern equipment could detect certain ball movements that went largely unnoticed by normal vision. It seems "too severe" to penalize in these unusual instances, says Thomas Pagel, who is the USGA's senior director of the Rules of Golf.
The timing of this new decision might seem to indicate it was enacted in reaction to a two-stroke penalty Tiger Woods received for accidentally moving his ball at the BMW Championship in September. Woods says he didn't think it moved, but it was caught on video. Pagel says the USGA and R&A had been working on this new decision since 2011.
2. A STORM IS COMING
During a round, golfers can now use devices such as smartphones to access weather reports during a tournament (DECISION 14-3/18). This had been considered a violation because it might influence play. Pagel says the new decision was adopted to keep in step with technology—lots of golfers carry smartphones—and to help stay informed about threatening weather.
3. JUST IN CASE
Golfers may now go forward approximately 50 yards without giving up their right to hit a provisional ball (DECISION 27-2A/1.5). In the past, there was some uncertainty as to whether golfers could advance in the direction of a potentially lost ball and then decide to play a provisional. This revised decision brings more clarity to the procedure, Pagel says.
4. EMBEDDED BALLS
Illustrations were added to the Decisions book to help golfers identify when a ball is embedded and when they're entitled to take relief without penalty (DECISION 25-2/0.5).
Essentially, the ball needs to be resting in an indentation in soil. No relief is granted when the ball is embedded in a grass-lined impression.
Q: You hit a terrific provisional shot that stops inches from the hole on a par 3. As you approach the green, your opponent spots your original ball stuck in a tree. Can you call that ball "unplayable" and tap in the provisional?
A: No, a provisional ball can be played only for a ball that might be out-of-bounds or lost outside a water hazard. Once the original is found, the provisional must be abandoned (Rule 27-2c). You could declare the original unplayable, proceed under Rule 28, and put another ball in play. But it can't be the provisional. What you could have done: Tap in the provisional before anyone found the first ball. Even if you play out of turn in match play, your opponent can recall the stroke, but he can't make you play the original ball.
Is It Plus Or Minus?
Why are Handicap Indexes that are better than 0 referred to as being "plus," when in fact, they are represented with a "minus" numerical value? Simply put, a golfer with a "plus" Index has to add—not subtract—strokes to his gross score to determine a net score. For example: Say a golfer with a minus-2 course handicap (-2.0) shot 72. In a stroke-play competition involving handicaps, his gross score would be 72, but his net score would be 74 (72 plus the two extra strokes for having a course handicap better than 0).
Golf Digest Contributing Editor DEAN KNUTH is a former director of handicapping for the USGA.