It was a little more than 50 years ago, in a compromise struck in December 1968, that the entity now known as the PGA Tour was formed, breaking away from the PGA of America in a move spearheaded by Gardner Dickinson and supported by the game’s two biggest names, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Little known about that time is that the players contemplated instituting their own set of rules separate from the Rules of Golf established by the USGA and the R&A, the game’s two governing bodies. With Joseph C. Dey, the longtime executive director of the USGA, accepting the job as the PGA Tour’s first commissioner starting in 1969, such a move might have made some sense.
It didn’t happen.
Those circumstances are relevant in light of the ongoing debate at the elite level over the implementation of changes to the Rules of Golf at the beginning of the year. PGA Tour players continue to voice their concerns about some of the new Rules, with Justin Thomas among the more vocal. Many players have expressed interest in wanting more input in a process that has been years in the making.
“I do sympathize because I was part of that myself, thinking that way,” Nicklaus said last week at the Honda Classic, at which his and wife Barbara’s charitable organization, the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, is the primary beneficiary. “But we all took the position that we are not bigger than the game of golf and the game of golf is the USGA and the R&A. We felt like if we did that, then we’re making ourselves more important than the ruling bodies of the game of golf, and we didn’t think it was the right thing to do. Now did we have hiccups? Yeah, we have had hiccups. But that’s OK.”
Nicklaus said it has been his experience over the years that the USGA and R&A have tried to communicate with the game’s top professional players, but pointed out that touring pros aren’t the only constituents that the governing bodies serve.
“The USGA and the R&A have always been very respectful of the players,” said the Golden Bear. “They may not have done exactly what the players felt because maybe they had other interests that they thought was better for the overall game of golf than necessarily tournament golf.”
Bob Goalby, who won the 1968 Masters and was one of the more outspoken proponents in favor of the “player revolt,” as newspapers reports characterized it in the day, said the players “never got deep into the weeds” on the issue of making their own rules.
“It never got too serious,” said Goalby, who turns 90 next week. “About 10 years earlier there actually was more talk about it. But guys like Sam Snead were strong voices supporting the USGA [in 1968]. And so were Arnie and Jack.”
It’s worth noting that the R&A and USGA conducted meetings in 1963 and ’67 to create a single code of rules, but that didn’t stop professional golfers from pushing back. A wire story dated Nov. 24, 1968, reported player dissatisfaction with a number of measures, including the rule that permitted a ball on the green to be lifted only once (basically mandating continuous putting until a player holes out). Pros of that era also didn’t think highly of the 14-club rule, limitations on equipment specifications or the prohibition of the side-saddle putting, which Snead utilized with great success.
The response from then USGA president Hord Hardin was “hands off” on responding to some 200 professionals, because the USGA was focused on creating a set of rules for all 10 million golfers. Hardin also was sensitive to ensuring the USGA did not take sides in the rift between touring professionals and the PGA of America.
“I get it. We’re only the one percent of the one percent of the one percent who play game,” said two-time major winner Zach Johnson, obviously embracing a similar line of thinking about the Rules of Golf covering players of all skill sets. “I think the intention of most of the [new] rules is probably proper—let’s make it more practical. But this is the one year where there have been so many substantial changes, and with that is going to come discrepancies, and those discrepancies are going to be [highlighted] on the PGA Tour because we’re on television.”
Appearing last Sunday on Golf Channel’s Morning Drive, John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships, was sympathetic to the tour players’ concerns.
“It’s very clear there is a certain level of discomfort with some tour players, certainly not all, and we are working to address that with certain rules,” Bodenhamer said. “We know we have more work to do.
“With the amount of change this was, we thought there would need to be clarification, and there still will be. We are only eight weeks into this. Things are going to continue to happen. We are going to have to continue to talk about it and engage with players. That’s the key, and we are going to make a concerted effort to do that, and to continue to do that throughout the season.”
Offering yet further historical perspective, Nicklaus pointed out that the USGA and R&A often adjust the Rules according to necessity. For example, in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club the USGA first instituted the rule mandating continuous putting. In 1960, the penalty for hitting a shot out of bounds was distance only.
“Continuous putting, flagstick in … we had all that stuff,” he said, noting that the new drop procedure might be among the changes that need to be revisited. “I think they’re only trying to simplify the game and to make it quicker and their heart is in the right place, but every time you do something, it takes a while to work out all the bugs. They will work it out.”