Rules of GolfAugust 28, 2017

As feedback period on new proposed Rules of Golf draws to close, USGA/R&A officials still on track for 2019 implementation

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Harry How

Speak now or forever hold your peace.

OK, so maybe it’s not that cut-and-dried for golf fans still digesting the sweeping new proposed Rules of Golf that the USGA and R&A offered in March—golfers are never going to stay silent when it comes to offering opinions about the rules.

But on Thursday, Aug. 31, the official open comment period regarding the “modernized” rules comes to an end, and the two governing bodies begin the business of formally codifying the changes in preparation for implementing them on Jan. 1, 2019.

According to USGA communications staff, more than 20,000 people have offered their thoughts, with more than 600,000 watching the online videos. For those who still want to pass along your thoughts, you can do go to usga.org/rules or call 908-326-1850.

“I think it’s been overwhelmingly positive,” said John Bodenhamer, USGA senior managing director of rules, competitions and equipment standards, of the feedback that’s been obtained so far. “I have not heard anybody say, ‘Oh you guys are out of your mind.’ What we’ve heard is that people really like the changes, but everybody seems to have one or two things that either they need to be clarified, or maybe they disagree with or they think could have been done a different way or ask why it happened.”

A refresher for those who might have forgotten what the new Rules involve:

The current 34 rules would be consolidated into a smaller, easier-to-understand book with 24. As part of this, proposed changes included a reduction on the time you can search for a lost ball from five minutes to three. Also offered is a simplification of how to drop a ball, allowing for golfers to even hover it one inch off the ground before releasing it. Another change does away with players having to remove a flagstick before putting and recommends a time for making a stroke (less than 40 seconds). There’s a new form of stroke play proposed where total number of shots for any hole can be capped (double par, for example). Golfers also would no longer get penalized if they accidentally caused a ball or ball-marker to move on the putting green, or if they want to remove loose impediments in a hazard—to be called a “penalty area.”

The motive behind almost all the changes is to make the game friendlier, quicker and easier to understand while still retaining its most basic elements.

RELATED: A comprehensive guide to the proposed new Rules of Golf

Bodenhamer says that the plan moving forward remains the same as it did in March. The two governing bodies will take the feedback and review it both internally and jointly over the next four or five months. Besides coming to a consensus about what from the proposed rules changes will remain and what will be modified or dropped, logistical issues must be also be worked so that the overall rollout continues in a timely manner to have the rules set for implementation on New Year’s Day 2019.

“Once we get into the fall, we’ll really get into the meat of finalizing the rules,” Bodenhamer said. “Because none of the rest of this can fall in place until we have the actual rules and definitions.”

What will live will be what Bodenhamer calls “The Handbook,” the former Decisions on the Rules of Golf, that he anticipates will be used by tournament committees and rules officials for guidance. Additionally, there will be a “Players’ Edition” of the new rules that would be what golfers could carry in their bags (or access on their smart phones).

Bodenhamer said the goal is to have the final draft of the new rules available in spring 2018 (with no specific date yet set) so that educational training be held the remainder of the year for rules officials and players alike.

In hearing the feedback, Bodenhamer said that there were two central areas that have arguably created the most discussion, one surrounding something that the USGA/R&A changed and one, interestingly, that didn’t.

The former was in regards to the change in the procedures for dropping a ball and the creation of relief areas that are either 80 inches from the reference point (for drops next to a penalty area or for an unplayable lie) or 20 inches (all other drops).

“I don’t think we’ve been surprised. That’s a big change,” Bodenhamer said. Some of the questions have surrounded the logic behind the 20 and 80 inch areas, but mostly they have focused on whether a drop from an inch above the ground really constitutes a drop at all, or whether placing the ball would be just as effective. Bodenhamer’s response has been that even at dropping an inch, there is still a randomness that comes from the result that retains the spirit of the drop, while avoiding the complication of balls rolling everywhere.

Brian Mahoney, executive director of the Metropolitan Golf Association, reiterated that the dropping procedures has been the most discussed of the changes when he’s talked to his local golfers. He says this from practical experience, as he helped organize with the USGA a play day earlier this year in which the new rules were taken out on the course to let golfers “test” them as well as allow USGA officials to see them being applied and used on the course.

The other more hotly questioned topic was not providing golfers relief when a ball in a fairway comes to rest in a divot hole. Bodenhamer says that he’s more than willing to hear people out about the “fairness” (or lack there of) that comes from bad break when your ball rolls into a hole. But he counters with the notion that defining what is or is not a divot hole is complicated and that the rub of the green is a “fundamental characteristic of the game.”

Mahoney said the opportunity to test the rules with real golfers was beneficial for him, his organization and, he thinks, the USGA, to see how practically things might be impacted when the new rules are scheduled to go into effect. After participating, he was even more convinced that the proposed changes will help the game in the long run.

“I feel strongly that this is great in terms of the industry and the ability to interact with potentially new customers and engage people and not create this barrier of entry,” Mahoney said. “It’s already at an elementary level much simpler to interpret, understand, accept and adopt. That in short for me is the thing that I think I’m most positive about.”

“That’s been fun, frankly, for us,” Bodenhamer says of having the open discussions. “We thought it would be well received, honestly, but you never know when you go into these things.”


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