PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

The USGA Wants You To Rewrite The Rules

The ruling bodies are ready to change the entire manual for how the game is played.

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

April 13, 2017

What began in 2012 with small discussions from key members of golf's governing bodies about what to do with a set of rules that many believed was unwieldy, undesirable and often unintelligible, has evolved into a large-scale attempt to revise the way the game is played.

The most likely scenario is this: Starting in 2019, The Rules of Golf, jointly authored by the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, and used by millions of golfers worldwide, will look very different than it does now.

"There was a recognition on both sides of the pond to take a new look at it, to put everything on the table and do something good for the game," says John Bodenhamer, senior managing director, championships and governance for the USGA. "We're very happy with what we've come up with and are excited to see how golfers of all levels feel about what we're proposing."

Before any rule is changed, you'll have several months to write, email or call the USGA and offer your opinion. Once that comment period is complete on Aug. 31, rules-makers say they will review the feedback, finalize a new set of procedures and penalties and announce them early in 2018, to be put in play for 2019.

There are currently 34 rules in The Rules of Golf. The proposal calls for an easier-to-understand book of 24. Officials want to consolidate many of the rules sections. Examples: The terms "abnormal ground conditions" and "obstructions" would be merged to create "abnormal course conditions." "Loose impediments" and "movable obstructions" would be under a single rule. Officials also would like to take the rules related to the committee out of the book and put them in a separate procedural document.

The USGA and R&A are also proposing to publish a shorter version of the rules called the Player's Edition, a reference guide to the most common rules situations encountered during a round. It will be written in language more recognized by golfers worldwide instead of the legalese in the current book.

If you're wondering what becomes of the 550-page Decisions on the Rules of Golf, it would be known as The Handbook.

"The guiding principle for everything we propose is that it should be easier to understand and put in play," Bodenhamer says. He adds that USGA employees have been testing the proposals during casual rounds, and the results have been positive—especially in speeding up play. One proposed rule change calls for a reduction in the time you can search for a lost ball from five minutes to three. The rules-makers also want to simplify dropping when taking relief (but still retain its randomness) by allowing golfers to drop from any height. The recommendation is that the ball should be dropped at least an inch above the ground, the grass or anything growing, they say.

Other proposed changes call for doing away with having to remove a flagstick before putting, and a suggested time for making a stroke (less than 40 seconds).

A new form of stroke play where the total number of shots for any hole can be capped (double par, for example) is also being considered.

Golfers also would no longer be 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"). There definitely is a common-sense approach to the changes, Bodenhamer says.

So what's missing from the proposal? If you'd like to see the stroke-and-distance penalties for losing a ball or hitting it out-of-bounds go away, the rules-makers are "not there yet," Bodenhamer says. They could treat an out-of-bounds situation the same as if you hit into a lateral water hazard, meaning you wouldn't have to return to the previous spot to play your next shot. But the USGA couldn't come up with a sensible way to handle lost-ball situations. "Where do you drop when that happens?" Bodenhamer says.

That being said, the decision by the rules-makers to leave stroke-and-distance penalties in the book is not final. "We're not decreeing it from on high," he says. "We're really curious to hear what people think and offer as solutions for stroke-and-distance."

Another rule that probably won't change is relief from a divot hole. Jack Nicklaus famously said divots should be treated as ground under repair, but the rules-makers believe players encounter good and bad breaks throughout a round, and this is one of those times when the golf gods decide.

One point of emphasis in the proposed changes that might be agreeable to golfers on the professional tours is to limit the effect of video review when determining whether a penalty has occurred. Specifically, the USGA and R&A would like to give players the benefit of the doubt when estimating or measuring, such as when estimating where a ball last crossed into a penalty area or measuring out a relief area. If the golfer did everything that could be reasonably expected to get the drop area correct, he or she will not have that drop scrutinized later by reviewing a video or some other evidence gathered after the fact. "People are imperfect, and there are times you cannot be precise when measuring," says Craig Winter, director, rules of golf and amateur status for the USGA. "We want there to be a built-in margin of error so the golfer is not penalized when they thought they got it right."

In a few cases, the changes might seem more stringent, but the intent is actually to avoid penalty entrapments. For example, you can't replace a club that you damaged, and that could save you from being disqualified.

Player integrity is being emphasized in the proposal, Bodenhamer says. That includes allowing courses and committees to adopt standards of player conduct and put more obligations on players to marshal themselves. Once the rules are finalized in 2018, an educational program will familiarize officials with the changes.

"We're still thinking about how we're going to train the trainers, so to speak," he says. "The education component of this will be handled more intentionally than we've ever done."

Here are the proposed changes:

If you accidentally move your ball or ball marker on the putt-ing green, there is no penalty. Just put it back. Currently: It's a one-stroke penalty if you do either (with exceptions).

If you lift and replace your ball on the putting green and it moves, move it back to its original spot regardless of whether the wind moved it, or there was no clear reason. Currently: The ball is played from its new location unless you or an outside agency moved it. Then it would be replaced.

You can repair almost any damage on the putting green, including spike marks and animal damage. You cannot repair natural imperfections. Currently: You can only repair ball marks or old hole plugs.

As long as you don't improve the conditions for your stroke, you can touch the line of putt to indicate a target. Currently: Touching the line comes with a penalty of loss of hole in match play or two shots in stroke play.

You can leave an unattended flagstick in the cup when your ball is on the putting green, and there is no penalty if your ball strikes it. Currently: You lose the hole in match play or incur a two-shot penalty in stroke play if you strike the flagstick with a stroke from the putting green.

The term "water hazard" is being changed to "penalty area" and will consist of red- and yellow-marked areas. This could include additional areas that don't contain water, such as desert, jungle and lava rock. If your ball ends up in one of these areas, a one-stroke penalty is applied if you take relief. Currently: Relief is allowed only from a water hazard (marked yellow) or a lateral water hazard (marked red).

You can move loose impediments in penalty areas, touch the ground with your hand or club, or ground your club without penalty. Currently: If you did any of the preceding, it's a loss of hole (match play) or a two-shot penalty (stroke play).

Committees are allowed to mark all penalty areas as red so that lateral relief is always allowed. However, they can mark a penalty area yellow (no lateral relief) when they believe it's appropriate. Currently: All water hazards have to be marked yellow unless it's impossible or unreasonable for you to drop behind the hazard. Then it can be marked red.

You can't drop on the opposite side from where the ball last entered a penalty area marked red. Currently: You can take relief on the opposite side of a lateral water hazard from where your ball last entered it.

You can touch and move a loose impediment in a bunker when your ball is in that bunker. Currently: Penalty for doing so is loss of hole (match play) or two shots (stroke play).

You can touch the sand with your hand or club as long as you're not testing the conditions of the bunker, you're not placing the club right in front of or behind the ball, and you're not making a practice swing or backswing. Currently: With some exceptions, such as accidentally falling when entering the bunker, touching the sand with a hand or club results in loss of hole (match play) or a two-shot penalty (stroke play).

You can take a two-stroke penalty to obtain relief outside a bunker on a line from the hole through where the ball was at rest in the sand. Currently: The only penalty relief you can take outside a bunker is to play from where your last stroke was made.

You are considered to have caused your ball to move only if it is virtually certain (at least 95 percent likely) that you were the cause. Currently: You are considered to have caused your ball to move if it is more likely than not (50.1 percent) that you were the cause.

No matter where you are on the course, there is no penalty if you accidentally move your ball while searching for it. Just replace it. Currently: There is a one-stroke penalty for accidentally moving it.

If your ball is lying off the putting green when it moves, and its original spot isn't known, just replace it on the estimated spot. An example: If your ball was buried in matted-down grass, replace it in the estimated spot, buried in matted-down grass. Currently: You would drop when you're not sure of the location.

If your ball accidentally strikes you, your caddie, your opponent or any equipment, there is no penalty. Play it as it lies. But you can't deliberately try to carom a shot off your equipment. Currently: Accidentally hitting yourself, your caddie, the person attending a flagstick on the green—or an attended or removed flagstick when making a stroke from the putting green—results in a one- or two-stroke penalty depending on the circumstances.

The only requirements when taking a drop are to hold the ball above the ground without it touching any object and ensure it falls through the air before coming to rest. Height is not a requirement. Currently: You must stand and hold the ball at shoulder height, with your arm extended, before dropping.

When a ball must be dropped, it has to be in a defined relief area. Currently: You are sometimes allowed to drop on or as near as possible to a spot or a line. The proposed change would give you 20 inches on either side of a line, and 20 or 80 inches around a spot depending on the type of drop.

A dropped ball must come to rest in the relief area where it was dropped or it must be dropped again. Currently: The ball must be dropped again if it rolls to any of the nine specified areas in Rule 20-2c. An example: If it rolled more than two club-lengths from where the ball first struck the ground.

The relief area will be 80 inches from the reference point (for drops next to a penalty area or for an unplayable lie) or 20 inches (all other drops). The recommendation is to mark the shaft of a club to assist in measuring. Currently: Drop areas are measured in club-lengths, and you can choose any club to measure.

Your ball is lost if not found within three minutes of searching. Currently: Your ball is lost if not found within five minutes. You can substitute a ball when taking relief. Currently: With a few exceptions, you have to continue with your original ball when taking free relief, though you can substitute a ball when taking a penalty relief.

You can take free relief for an embedded ball anywhere in the general area (formerly "through the green") of the course except sand (unless a Local Rule is enacted to make free relief available only for embedded balls in areas cut to fairway height or less). Currently: Free relief is given only for balls embedded in closely mowed areas (fairway height or less) unless a Local Rule is enacted.

When estimating or measuring a spot, point, line, area or distance under a rule, you won't be second-guessed later using evidence such as video review. This applies as long as you use reasonable judgment and do all you can to make an accurate measurement. Currently: Your judgment is given no particular weight or deference, and the committee decides any issue about the accuracy of estimation based on a review of all facts.

You may use distance-measuring devices such as laser range finders and GPS watches during a round unless a Local Rule is adopted prohibiting their use. Currently: A Local Rule has to be adopted allowing their use.

You can use a club damaged during a round. Currently: You may use a damaged club during a round only if the impairment happened during the normal course of play. If it were damaged in anger or for another reason, it can't be used for the remainder of the round.

You can't replace a damaged club during a round unless you were not responsible for its condition. Currently: You can replace a club if its damage occurred during the normal course of play.

If you have a good reason for lifting a ball, such as to identify it, check for damage or determine if it lies in a condition where relief is permitted (such as checking to see if it's embedded), you don't have to announce your intention to another player or the marker. You also don't have to give that person an opportunity to observe the process. Currently: Before lifting, you must announce your intention to another player or the marker and allow that person to observe the process.

A ball cannot be substituted during play of a hole because it's misshapen. Currently: You can replace a misshapen ball.

Your caddie can't stand on a line behind you from the time you take your stance until the stroke is made. Currently: A caddie can't stand on a line behind you while you're making a stroke but can line you up while you address the ball.

Your caddie can lift and replace your ball on the putting green without specific authorization from you. Currently: It's a one-stroke penalty for your caddie to lift your ball without permission.

PACE OF PLAY A new form of stroke play is recognized where your maximum score for a hole is capped (such as double par or triple bogey). The committee sets that max score. Currently: You must hole out in stroke play unless playing Stableford, Par or Bogey formats.

Players in stroke play are encouraged to play "ready golf" when it can be done in a safe and responsible way, and opponents in match play can agree to go out of turn to save time. Currently: There is no penalty for playing out of turn, but in match play an opponent can make you replay a shot if you do so.

The recommended time to make a stroke is no more than 40 seconds, and The Rules of Golf recognizes you should normally play more quickly than that. Currently: No recommendation is given.

Committees can adopt codes of player conduct and set penalties for breach of standards in that code. Currently: Committees can disqualify you for serious breaches of etiquette but cannot impose lesser penalties.

You have to declare you're playing a provisional ball before making a stroke with it. But you can begin a search and still have the option of playing a provisional as long as you do so within three minutes. Currently: The moment you go forward to search for your original ball, you can no longer play a provisional.

You're allowed to listen to or watch sporting events, news broadcasts or music as "entertainment" during a round if it doesn't give you an advantage when playing. It would be a penalty, for example, if you were listening because it improves your rhythm or relaxes you, but not if you wanted to share a new song you love with other members of your group. Currently: With some exceptions, you cannot listen to music or watch/listen to sporting events and news during a round.

All holes created by animals will be treated as abnormal course conditions. Currently: Free relief is given only from a burrowing animal hole. Every one of God's creatures has the summer to object.

▶ If you want to give the USGA feedback, send an email to or visit Or call 908-326-1850.