Last week was a busy week for Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s Senior Managing Director of Governance, with golf's significant rules changes going into effect on Jan. 1. And with the PGA Tour teeing it up for the first time under the new rules, Pagel was on site at Kapalua Resort, ensuring there wouldn't be any misunderstanding or misapplication of the rules. We caught up with Pagel on the grounds of the Sentry Tournament of Champions to see what his biggest rules takeaways were after talking and observing the world's best players.
What is the most common issue so far that players have asked about in your interactions with them?
“The most common question is guys trying to get a handle on the dropping procedure. The drop is the one area where there needs to be a lot of thought. Frankly, and I told this to them: If they do that incorrectly, that’s one area where they can be penalized if they act as they did in 2018. In a lot of areas we’re removed penalties if they acted as they would before. As opposed to the drop where they need to remember it’s knee height. And once it’s in the relief area, then it’s good. If they play outside the relief area, it’s now a two-shot penalty.
“You can make a drop from shoulder height without penalty. You simply have to re-drop from knee-height before you play the shot. The rules allow you to undo any procedural breach before you make a stroke. So, if you drop from shoulder height, which we have been doing for 30 years, then you can re-drop properly. There’s a misconception that it’s a penalty. Only if you play the shot. In six weeks, we’ll all forget about shoulder height.”
I'm sure there was a lot of chatter about the flagstick.
“Yeah, there was a lot of chatter on the putting green. A lot of chatter on the flagstick—what it means to remove it, what it means to attend the flag. If they attend the flagstick like they did before, it has to be removed. The option to leave in the flagstick is a decision you need to make before the stroke. So, your caddie needs to be away from it. Obviously, a lot of players were curious what it might look like.”
What was your reaction to seeing Bryson DeChambeau putting with the flagstick in often?
“It wasn’t anything we didn’t expect, because he already had expressed his intentions prior to the season. We saw a variety of players do it. Some just had that six-inch tap-in and went ahead and just knocked it in. We knew it would come down to personal preference. Some guys might try it and say I’m never doing that again. Others might like it.
“Obviously, I’ve seen a lot of the social media chatter about it, and it’s interesting. I’m not sure how we gain a lot of insight or draw any conclusions when we’ve only seen one round, but we hope people watching at home or wherever looked at it and thought, ‘this is different, but not really a big deal.’”
We've heard concerns about pace of play when it comes to repairing spike marks on the greens or perhaps trying to gain an advantage with the line. Is that accurate?
Yes, lots of players have concerns about pace of play with that new rule. We’re just trying to reinforce the fact that it’s just about cleaning up those imperfections. Spike marks or shoe prints in your line. It doesn’t mean you can create a trough to the hole; that’s improving your line. There’s a penalty for that. Before you couldn’t. We’re reinforcing the fact that the challenge is to keep the ball on the ground and get it into the hole, as opposed to keeping it on the ground, navigating a spike mark, and then getting it in the hole.”
What are you watching for early in the season?
“We know that when the lights are on this week we’re going to learn things. We’re going to learn things over the next month and over the next six months we maybe never thought of, and we’ll adjust if we have to. We think after seven years of work we’re in a good spot and, ultimately, we feel that the rules will be easier to understand and apply throughout the world.”
“One player who usually has some very strong opinions told me that it’s starting to put common sense into the Rules of Golf and you have to start somewhere. Another player, who now is a broadcaster, used the same words, that it’s about using common sense. At the end of the day that’s what we’re going for. That's the rationale for the things we did.”