Are the governing bodies of golf become kinder and gentler?
You could make that argument after looking at the changes the USGA and R&A announced today to the new edition of the Rules of Golf, effective Jan. 1, 2012, which generally offer golfers more leniency in certain instances on the course and, intriguingly for amateurs, off the course as well.
Most significant among the changes is a revision of Rule 18-2b that allows golfers not to be penalized if their ball moves after it has been addressed when it is "known or virtually certain" they did not cause the movement. The most common example would be when a gust of wind influences a ball on the green. Under the revised rule, if a player in no way caused the ball to move, there would be no penalty and the ball would be played from its new position.
The new rule would have benefitted Webb Simpson last May at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Simpson was on the 15th green during the final round and in contention for his first PGA Tour title when his ball, less than a foot from the hole, moved after he had put his putter down behind it. Simpson did not appear to cause the ball to move, but the rules required he be assessed a one-stroke penalty that eventually forced him into a playoff with Bubba Watson, one in which he lost. He subsequently went on to win two tour titles later in the year, but at the time the penalty was a hard one to accept. Thomas Pagel, USGA senior director of rules, said the Simpson incident was not the impetus for the change in the rule. "It was something we had been discussing for a while," Pagel said. "I think you'll find with all the changes that you see and any time we make a change, everything is sort of well vetted and well thought out. I think that's the purpose of our four-year cycle [for reviewing the rules]."
Ultimately the change came out of a desire for fairness, Pagel noted. "Similar with situations with wind before the player had addressed the ball, now it will be treated the same after they addressed the ball."
Other notable rule changes included:
An exception to Rule 13-4 to amended to permit a player to smooth sand or soil in a hazard at any time, including before playing from that hazard, provided it is for the sole purpose of caring for the course and Rule 13-2 (which prohibits improving a player's lie, stance or line of play) is not breached.
The reformatting of Rule 12-1 to permit a player to search for his ball anywhere on the course where it may be covered by sand without penalty if the ball. A one-stroke penalty still applies, though, under Rule 18-2a if a player moves his ball in a hazard when searching it while it is believed to be covered by loose impediments.
An amendment to Rule 6-3a to provide that the penalty for starting late, but within five minutes of the starting time, is reduced from disqualification to loss of the first hole (match play) or two strokes at the first hole (stroke play). Previously the penalty reduction could made as a condition of competition.
Arguably the most interesting moves made by the governing bodies were made regarding the Rules of Amateur Status, where for the first time the USGA and R&A released a joint code. A change to Rule 2-2 now allows amateurs to enter into a contract and/or an agreement with a third party--which can include a professional agent or sponsor--in relation to the golfer's future as a professional provided the golfer does not obtain any financial gain, directly or indirectly, while still an amateur.
"Really what this is doing is recognizing these elite amateur players are going to have a lot to consider as they're preparing to enter the professional ranks," Pagel said. "This is going to allow them to arrange all that ahead of time so they can really begin their professional career on the right step. Again they can't gain any advantage while they're an amateur. They can't receive any compensation. But it will allow for them to go out and solicit an agent, solicit contracts and sort of be prepared for that next step that they're going to take anyway."
The USGA and R&A also added Rule 4-3 that will allow an amateur to receive subsistence expenses to assist with general living costs, provided the expenses are approved by and paid through the golfer's national golf union or association.
"It's going to be essentials, food and lodging," Pagel said. "Certainly I see that getting more use internationally than here in the U.S. In the U.S. when have the college system. Players in other parts of the world don't have that option. Those players hit a certain age and they have to make the decision to turn pro now or work. This is going to allow them to continue their amateur game while they prepare for their professional career and receive a little assistance while doing so."