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The Loop

Years in the making, a fundamental overhaul of the Rules of Golf is expected to be revealed in March

February 04, 2017

John Mummert

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The talk at Saturday’s USGA Annual Meeting concerned the thing that nobody could talk about.

For five years, modernizing the Rules of Golf has been a primary focus for officials with the governing body, in conjunction with their counterparts at the R&A. Anticipation was building that those in attendance at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel would get a sneak peak at what lies ahead. What they learned, however, is that it will be another month until the much-anticipated first draft is made public.

Hang in there, though, insisted USGA executive director Mike Davis and president Diana Murphy, re-elected to a second one-year term. The wait will be worth it.

What’s expected to be revealed is nothing short of the biggest restructuring of the Rules in decades. “It doesn’t fundamentally change how you think golf is played,” Davis said. “What it does do is fundamentally change the understanding of the rules, why they are the way they are, and how they’ll be communicated.”

That includes a re-organization of the Rules that is expected to blow up the current 34-rule structure.

Published reports last month acknowledged officials at the European Tour, privy to an early review of the USGA/R&A work, had begun talking about potential changes with members of the tour. Among those discussed were changing how players dropped a ball when taking relief, eliminating club length as a measurement for taking relief, decreasing the time players can search for a lost ball from five to three minutes, allowing players to repair marks left by shoe spikes on greens and altering the emphasis on yellow and red stakes for water hazards.

USGA officials would not say whether these are among the updates, but acknowledged that literally all rules have been reviewed.

“Nothing was sacred. Everything was on the table,” said John Bodenhamer, USGA senior managing director rules, competitions and equipment standards. “Every aspect of the rules, from the content to how they’re delivered, to how they’re written, to what they look like in writing, is all going to be different.”

Bodenhamer said that the roll out for the newly proposed Rules is expected to take place in March, followed by a six-month comment period where the USGA and R&A will solicit feedback from any and everyone in the golf community. From there, the two governing bodies will regroup to finalize language that will be revealed in late 2017 or early 2018 and go into effect Jan. 1, 2019, a year ahead of the normal timing for Rules changes.

In aiming to make the Rules more easily understandable, the modernization project has focused on using visuals to help articulate the Rules in a more impactful way than mere words. Bodenhamer said that the use photos, images and even video to provide greater explanation has been explored and is likely to be implemented.

Davis, too, stressed a need for technology to help update and deliver the Rules in the 21st century.

“How come we can’t have an instance where someone can [take their phone and] say ‘Siri, I hit my ball into a water hazard. What are my options?’ ” Davis said.

There were some things the USGA brass could talk about Saturday. Among them were plans to try to make golf more accessible to players with disabilities.

“We have given community grants for many years,” Murphy said during her President’s address, “but it is the right time to expand that support into a deeper review of modifications to the Rules of Golf and equipment rules for disabled golfers.”

This will also include the creation of a national championship for disabled players within the next few years.

Meanwhile, the USGA will increase the purse at this year’s U.S. Open from $10 million to $12 million, making it the largest of the four men’s major championships. The U.S. Women’s Open purse will also rise from $4 million to $5 million and the U.S. Senior Open purse will be $4 million.

Murphy also announced that Bob Ford, the long-time head professional at Oakmont (Pa.) C.C. and Seminole G.C., has been named the 2017 Bob Jones Award winner, the highest given by the USGA. Ford, 63, will receive the honor in June during U.S. Open week.