Six years in the making and 12 months after a first draft was circulated to the golf world for comment, officials with the USGA and R&A have settled on a new, modernized version of the Rules of Golf that will go into effect Jan. 1, 2019. The two governing bodies jointly unveiled the final revisions on Monday, officially codifying the most sweeping changes to the game’s Rules in decades.
With the objective of making the Rules easier to understand and apply, the result is a reduction in number from 34 to 24 and a reorganization that consolidates principles and simplifies the overall language to make it more practical to current golfers and more accessible to newcomers.
Several forward-thinking updates originally outlined in last year’s proposed Rules remain in place. They include a reduction in the time spent to find a lost ball from five to three minutes, elimination of penalties for accidentally moving a ball on the green or during a search, allowing for the removal of loose impediments and touching the ground in hazards, and fixing spike marks among other relaxed procedures on greens and in bunkers.
There have been some changes, however, from the proposed Rules that take into account the 30,000-plus pieces of feedback the two groups received last summer. Most notably, the USGA and R&A have written a local rule that permits committees to allow golfers an alternative to the stroke-and-distance penalty for lost balls or balls hit out of bounds. Under the local rule, which is not intended for professional or elite-level competition, golfers can opt to drop the ball in the vicinity of where they lost or hit the ball out of bounds—including in the nearest fairway area—under a two-stroke penalty.
“This addresses the issue you hear at the club level about the practical nature of going back and playing under stroke and distance just doesn’t work. It has a negative impact on pace of play, and so how can we introduce something to resolve that. That’s what this local rule is about,” said Thomas Pagel, USGA senior director of Rules & Amateur Status. “You simply estimate where it’s out of bounds or where you ball is likely to be lost, you can go all the way out to the fairway and drop anywhere behind. … But the primary objective here is to keep the player moving forward, and we think that’s the real benefit of this.”
The governing bodies also decided to drop the penalty for a double hit, allowing golfers to simply count the one stroke they made to strike the ball, something that had not been introduced in the proposed Rules last March.
Two other originally proposed Rules changes have been amended. Rather than allow drops for relief to be done as close as two inches above the ground, players will be required to drop from knee height. Pagel said this seemed a fair compromise, helping simplify the dropping process while preserving the randomness of a drop.
Additionally, the provision that outlined a 20-inch and 80-inch standard measurement for taking relief returned to the two club-length standard using the longest club in your bag.
“I think of all the changes, that one is the real concrete example of we listened. This feedback period, we were sincere in asking for people’s views,” Pagel said. “Because the fixed measures, philosophically, makes total sense, but from a practical standpoint with people are saying I’m scratching my head a little bit, I’m not sure how I’m going to measure this, we had to step back and say OK lets change. … It’s a lot easier if I just use my club length. And so we just went back to the drawing board.”
Mind you, not all Rules issues that received lots of feedback were acted on. Pagel noted that while getting many requests about finding a way to provide relief when a ball comes to rest in the fairway in a divot hole, the governing bodies stood firm on the notion that this was something too fundamental a change.
“One of the primary objectives for the overall initiative is to make the rules easier to understand and apply, but to also make sure we maintained the traditions and principles behind the game,” Pagel said. “And the principles are to play the ball as it lies and the course as you find it. So to write a rule that allows a player to sort of deviate from that, was not something we were wanting to do.”
So what happens now? Well, more than 30 “how to apply” videos have also been created as educational tools and can be viewed at usga.org/rules. However, the USGA and R&A intend to wait until the fall before implementing a more comprehensive educational effort in preparation for Jan. 1, 2019.
“From our perspective, there is a recognition that there are nine more months of play under the current rules, and so we don’t really want to really create a mass level of confusion,” Pagel said. “So you’re not really going to hear much from us. That information will be available for those who want to find it, but really it’s not going to be until September where we’ll be pushing education and doing it at all levels of the game.”
That’s not to say the USGA and R&A won’t be busy. Between now and the end of the summer, the governing bodies will work toward producing the accompany materials to support the new Rules, specifically the three primary publications:
The Player’s Edition of the Rules of Golf: An abridged set of rules, written in the second person, that’s intended to be the primary publication for golfers.
The Rules of Golf: The full addition, written in the third person that will include illustrations.
The Official Guide to the Rules of Golf: The publication that will replace the Decisions book (and be about a third of its size) intended for use by tournament committees and rules officials.
There’s also the task of translating the Rules into more than 30 languages as well as the creation of the Rules in digital formats that include easy to use search capabilities.
“There will be a lot of stuff going on in the background,” Pagel said.
However, the heavy lifting has officially been taken care of, and the result is something officials with the governing bodies can be proud of, according to Pagel.
“I would say we’ve very confident and pleased with where we’ve ended up.”