USGA rules chief gets first-hand view of the new Rules of Golf in action, pleased with early results
KAPALUA, Hawaii — As the opening round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions got underway Thursday morning, Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s Senior Managing Director, Governance, stood discreetly away from the teeing area under the shadow of the clubhouse at Kapalua Resort, radio in hand, soaking in cross-talk instead of the Maui sun.
The new Rules of Golf, effective Jan. 1, were in effect for the first time on the PGA Tour, and he was certainly plugged in to the proceedings. He was curious how the day would unfold, but not at all nervous.
Pagel had spent the last few days educating the 34-player field on the ins and outs of the key changes, including new drop procedures, the leniency on removing the flagstick while putting, and the updated restrictions on green-reading materials.
“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,” Pagel said, noting that it’s among the few changes where players can be penalized if they act like they did under the old Rules. “In a lot of areas, we’ve 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 [the ball] is in the relief area, then it’s good. If they play outside the relief area, it’s now a two-shot penalty.”
Pagel explained that if players did mistakenly drop from shoulder height, there is the opportunity to fix things. “You simply have to re-drop from knee-height before you play the shot. The rules allow you do undue any procedural breach before you make a stroke,” Pagel said. “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.”
A subject that might have more staying power is the option for a player to leave the flagstick in the hole when playing a shot from the green.
“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,” said Pagel, before sending the same message he offered to players. “If [caddies] 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.”
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That answer came in the opening round on the Plantation Course, predictably when Bryson DeChambeau was putting. As he promised, the four-time winner in 2018 left the flagstick in for a majority of his strokes on the green, and felt like he “maximized” his potential for scoring. Interestingly, though perhaps not yet tellingly, he led the field in strokes gained/putting after a four-under 69.
“It wasn’t anything we didn’t expect when he already had expressed his intentions,” Pagel said Friday morning before the second round began. “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,” he added. “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.’ ”
Pagel smiled when he relayed one of the most meaningful comments he heard. “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. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re going for.”
Pagel planned to stay throughout the tournament and then give way to Craig Winter, USGA Senior Director, Rules of Golf and Amateur Status, who would be on hand at next week’s first full-field event of the year, the Sony Open, in Honolulu. Pagel was eager to see how the rest of the week would unfold, as well as the weeks to come.
“We know that when the lights are on this week, we’re going to learn things,” Pagel said. “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.”