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The downside of modernizing the Rules of Golf

Making the Rules easier to understand sounds all well and good, but it comes with potential risks
December 13, 2017
during round one of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club on February 18, 2016 in Pacific Palisades, California.

For the better part of the last decade, officials at the USGA and R&A have offered a simple refrain to anyone professing difficulty understanding the nuances of the Rules of Golf. Be patient, they insisted. Relief is on the way.

This promise, at last, is close to being fulfilled. In March, the governing bodies jointly revealed their first pass at a “modernized” Rules book that tackled several of the game’s most complex, confusing and confounding capstones. Having solicited feedback from the golf community, officials from the two groups are currently in the throes of crafting the final text (sources say it will differ only slightly from the original draft). The end result is anticipated to be released around March 2018 and will go into effect Jan. 1, 2019.

It’s not exaggeration to say that the new Rules come at a critical time for the sport. As a means to entice more people to take up the game, as well as keep others from giving it up, a little less legalese and a little more logic only makes sense.

Yet where their impact could have an even greater influence is at the elite, competitive level, where the rigidness of the current code has left the game looking foolishly wedded to outdated applications of equity and fairness in the eyes of the general public, which sees golf solely through the lens of the pro tours.

The perceived injustices that occurred to Dustin Johnson and Anna Nordqvist at the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open in 2016 were slowly fading when Lexi Thompson became the latest tour pro tripped up by technicalities. The four-stroke penalty assessed on Sunday at the ANA Inspiration, a major championship that she controlled only to lose in a playoff, was widely considered the proverbial punishment that didn’t fit the crime.

Suddenly, 2019 wasn’t coming soon enough, and the USGA and R&A took unusual steps to speed up its remedies. Local rules now can keep golfers from being penalized for accidentally causing a ball or ball-marker to move on the putting green. In instances where high-def video shows a rules infraction that the naked eye could not see or that a player’s reasonable judgment did not perceive, no breach will be deemed to have occurred. And just this week, the governing bodies acted to keep players from incurring an “additional two-stroke penalty for failing to include a penalty on the score card when the player was unaware of the penalty.” (Complex, indeed.) All these will be accounted for in the revised Rules.


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Implicit in the term “modernized” is the sense that the new Rules will be clearer and more understandable. And no doubt that is the case. The current 34 rules are expected to be consolidated into a smaller, easier-to-understand book with 24. 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, doing away with the need to remove a flagstick before putting and an emphasis on speeding up play.

At the recreational level, all these make sense. A handful of state and regional golf associations tested these new Rules last summer, and they received plaudits from everyday amateurs.

Yet if the aim of the Rules revision is, in part, to save golf from itself, it’s wise to appreciate the potential trade-off involved. In an attempt to act as kinder, gentler governing bodies, the USGA and R&A risk that the new Rules lose some of their objectivity and, in turn, a fair bit of their teeth.

Consider the situation that arose with Hideki Matsuyama earlier this month at the Hero World Challenge. During Friday’s second round, the young Japanese talent flubbed his third shot on the par-4 18th hole at Albany from just off the green, his chip landing just shy of the putting surface. As the ball started rolling back toward him, Matsuyama was shown on TV tapping his wedge on the ground near where he hit the ball. Many wondered if this act was a breach of the Rules as he potentially was improving the lie for his fourth shot (the ball did not actually come back to the same spot).

Stepping in to try and clear up the matter, Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s VP of Rules and Competition asked Matsuyama if he “intended” to improve his lie. When the player said no, Russell decided that that was enough to clear him from a possible infraction.

To those following along on social media, the outcome was an unsatisfactory one. Ask any golfer if they intended to break the Rules, and the answer, typically, is no. That doesn’t mean that the Rule wasn’t broken.

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The introduction of “player intent” into the application of the Rules brings with it a possible subjectiveness that could result in the replacement of one type of controversy for another, one even more explosive as it potentially calls into question a golfer’s integrity.

Inherent in golf is the idea that you believe that what a player is telling you is true. At some point, though, rules officials could find themselves in a situation where that might not be enough. Says one veteran USGA rules official, “One day we’re going to have to call a player out and say, We don’t believe you. And that’s not going to be a pretty conversation.”

There is an irony in the fact that the old, complex Rules acted as a shield for players by virtue of their complexity. With so many sections and subsections and sub-subsections, if you broke a Rule because you didn’t know it was a Rule to begin with, you often were forgiven for making an honest mistake. With a modernized Rules book, that defense becomes far more flimsy.

Indeed, if the Rules are going to be easier to understand, then golfers are going to be expected to genuinely understand them. In particular, golfers who make a living playing the game.

In that respect, the modernized Rules may well present a new set of challenges when they finally go online on New Year’s Day 2019. Less may turn out to actually be more, and that relief everyone was promised might not be quite so helpful.