RulesDecember 9, 2016

The USGA has plans to simplify the rules. We think it can do even more

Illustrations by Zohar Lazar

I was cheered to hear this week from USGA President Diana Murphy that details of the association’s Rules Modernization will be announced next year.

It’s overdue, it’s involved a lot of work here and with the R&A, and though one hopes the “modernization” goes beyond language, just reducing some of the 27,000 words we require to explain our game to its participants would be a terrific start.

But we can go further. Call me naive, but I’d love to see future alteration based on the handful of principles below. Anyone who’s ever attended a rules seminar knows the fun of rules as a sport in themselves, but it’s time we remembered that rules are meant to be in service of play.

Here we go:

1. What does the data say? From equipment regulation to, more recently, pace of play and maintenance management, the USGA’s mantra these days is, data, data, data. It has eschewed anecdotal “good ideas” in favor of empirical evidence. Hurray. So let’s begin our rules revision with the simple premise that unless an act or incident can be proven to improve a golfer’s score it incurs no penalty. If a player breaks a branch off in his backswing, that’s a justifiable penalty in that it improves his chances for a good shot, if for no other reason than he has eliminated doubt about whether his club will or will not strike the branch. But if a player makes a slightly incorrect drop—see Tiger at No. 15 of the 2013 Masters—to no advantage, why a penalty? Let’s measure a few of these so-called violations and determine if they really aid the player. If not, ignore them.

2. Be compassionate around the green. So many of golf’s mysterious rulings emanate from greens, which now run at speeds never anticipated when rules were written, allowing for ball movement that confounds players and rules officials alike. If anyone can demonstrate that a ball moving even an inch on a green—whether caused by the player or not—really gives that player an advantage. If not, drop it. Slight mismarking, forgetting to re-mark two inches away after moving a marker for a fellow competitor or other innocent mistakes that can hardly be proven to aid the player, and should be ignored.

3. Accidents happen. I’m looking for my ball in the deep rough and step on it. Violation. How has this improved my chances? “Oh, but you might have moved it to a better position.” The rule ought to be move it back, same lie, no penalty. If you couldn’t see it except to step on it to begin with, it goes back to that kind of lie. Accidents such as a shot hitting a cart—leading to inane discussion about who was driving and therefore whose equipment it is—should be replayed. No penalty. At the professional level, how we can we allow a tournament to be altered by the recording of a wrong score? We all know the score. How about a “Hey, this doesn’t look right.” A player tosses his ball to his caddie, who fumbles it into a hazard. Do we really think it’s equitable than, to avoid a penalty, the player needs to retrieve that ball from the muck? A player mistakenly carries a practice device in her bag. A penalty? Really? Fact is, if you assume a player’s sense of integrity, which we frequently pat ourselves on the back for possessing—accidents are accidents, not attempts to cheat. If you don’t believe your fellow competitor gets that, don’t bet him. Better yet, don’t play with him. And if it’s a tournament, report him.

4. Surveillance for all or none. If a rules violation can only be detected by high-speed, slo-mo cameras (or a TV viewer with too much time on his hands), sometimes in situations when not even the player him-or herself can sense movement or contact—see Justin Rose or Anna Nordqvist situations at last year’s Opens—is there really an advantage gained? Either all players’ shots are subject scrutiny or none are. You can guess which way we’re leaning. Sans supersonic detectors, rely on the player’s report. “But Nordqvist’s club touched two grain of sands on her backswing in the bunker!” See No. 1.

5. Penalize practices that do help, beginning with shot time. The game was not meant to be played only when a player has taken all the time she needs to remove every scintilla of doubt about the shot she faces. Indeed, dealing with doubt is one of the game’s great challenges. Ask any architect. Dealing with time ought to be as well. Therefore let’s enforce a time limit at least for tournament play. Forty seconds per shot, no exceptions. Another obvious fix: Marking balls for alignment purposes ought to be banned, because the data will show that this is an advantage. Line up a logo if you like, but that’s the limit. Curtail ball-handling and limit cleaning of one’s ball to one instance per green. Unless directly in the line of another player, limit marking to one instance as well. I think it was Frank Hannigan, the late former executive director of the USGA, who years ago reduced rules to about six. The first two, I think, were: Play it where you find it. Don’t touch it until you hole out. The ridiculous tolerance for repeated marking and cleaning has abandoned those principles. Two member-guest opponents this year —good players who should know better —picked up balls in the rough to “identify” them without any consultation with opponents. (Believe it or not, their lies improved. But we were bound by an unwritten rule: “Don’t call rules violations on your host’s friends” will never be reversed.)

6. It’s a game of honor. When inevitable doubts occur, ask the player. I hear the chorus: “But guys are playing for millions of dollars; they’re gonna’ help themselves!” If the professional tours have lost faith this cardinal tenet, let them deal with it. Repeated sketchiness earns disqualification. But for those of us who believe this still is a game of honor, don’t assume we’re crooks. You might as well announce that that we’re going to rob a bank.