Do the Rules of Golf Need a Complete Overhaul?

Tyler Olson

                  This Sunday there was another rules snafu at a USGA run tournament: this time in a playoff at the US Women’s Open. In the second hole of the three-hole playoff, Anna Nordqvist was hitting an approach out of a fairway bunker when her five-iron grazed a couple grains of sand so imperceptibly that neither her nor her competitor nor any of the fans in the gallery noticed it. However, with zoomed in HD television cameras focused on every angle of the shot the rules violation quickly became clear. Norvqvist and her competitor, Bethany Brittany Lang headed into the third playoff hole tied after making a pair of pars on the first and second. Both players were hitting their third shots from the fairway at the final hole when the rules officials finally made it out of the TV truck, confirming that Norqvist had indeed committed a two-stroke infraction. They alerted the players after Norqvist had hit her conservative third into the green and just before Lang hit her approach. Having just been handed a two-stroke cushion, she played an uber-safe third that allowed her to waltz away with the US Women’s Open title.

Despite the fact this imbroglio cost Anna Norqvist the tournament and Dustin Johnson’s penalty at the men’s Open didn’t hurt him in the end, this situation is far less controversial. Where the penalty on Norqvist was a clear-cut violation of the rules, the linguistic gymnastics USGA officials went through to convince golf fans that Dustin Johnson caused his ball to move on the fifth green persuaded nobody. However, the combination of these events at two majors within the same year may underscore a far more important point than just incompetence at the United States Golf Association: Are the rules of golf so archaic, complex, and strict that they need a total overhaul to survive in the 21st century?

Rules are important. From the Ten Commandments to the Magna Carta to the US Constitution to the USGA and R&A’s most recent version of the Rules of Golf, rules let people know what they can and cannot do in order to keep life fair for all involved. Without rules there is anarchy and anarchy is really no fun. Imagine football without a pass interference rule or baseball without a strike zone. Rules have to have a functional purpose. Pass interference exists so that defenders can’t simply hug wide receivers off the line of scrimmage, thus permitting a freer and more exciting passing game. Baseball makes pitchers keep the ball within a strike zone so that hitters can actually make contact with the ball and, ya know, score.

When looking at the rules of golf, it’s important to ask ourselves, what exactly is the purpose of these rules we’re following? Why in the world are we not allowed to ground our club in the bunker? Well, the rules of golf rule 13-4 and dozens of decisions attached to it make it very clear that action is considered testing the conditions. A ban on testing the sand in a bunker can make sense at many of our muni tracks or maybe in the early 1900’s when course care tech wasn’t at the level it is now: Not all bunkers are the same condition and taking a few practice hacks would ruin the “surprise”. One bunker might have slightly firmer sand than another. One could have rocks everywhere. One could be three feet deep of white fluff. However, at a US Women’s Open, every bunker is in the same immaculate condition. If that were not the case, there would be an uproar from everyone and their mother (quite possibly Ayesha Curry or Miko Grimes as well). These women had at this point completed seventy-four holes and who knows how many practice rounds. They knew the conditions of that bunker and every other one on the course. Two grains of sand did not give Anna Norqvist a two-stroke advantage on that shot, yet, that was her penalty. In the same vein, the accidental movement of the golf ball one quarter of an inch backwards (assuming DJ caused the ball to move at all, which we’ve covered is more of a stretch than even Gabby Douglas could pull off) did not save Dustin Johnson a stroke.

Some other golf rules that are patently absurd?

  • Rule 25-1 provides that if you are in an abnormal ground condition like ground under repair, you may take relief. It seems pretty reasonable on the face. However, this rule emphasizes that full relief must be taken, meaning that if your stance is even touching the line on the abnormal condition but the ball is not, you incur a two stroke penalty. A two stroke penalty for not moving your ball far enough. If it sounds stupid to you, then you agree with Rory McIlroy. They even included a cute little chart for us:


  • Rule 33-8/34 reiterates that no tournament ever may allow for relief from a divot in the middle of the fairway. A perfect shot is rewarded with a bad lie and the Rules of Golf gives all of us one giant middle finger. Insanity like this is exactly why people don’t play golf.
  • Rule 23-1/5 If there is an insect on your ball, it’s considered a loose impediment and therefore can be moved. However, if the ball moves in the process of the removal of the insect, the player incurs a one stroke penalty. There are a couple problems with this one. The first is the blatant discrimination towards arachnids by only including insects in the wording of this decision. What if a spider is on my ball? What then? The second is that it would be nearly impossible to remove an insect from the golf ball without moving the ball itself. The complete detachment from reality of half of this rulebook is insane and exemplified no better than in what happened to Dustin Johnson and Anna Norqvist.


So what is the solution here? We can’t really scrap the entire thing and start from scratch, although that would probably feel super-satisfying. Fortunately, we don’t need a complete overhaul. A look to the NFL provides a first step to take. The NFL makes small tweaks to its rulebook every year in order to keep up with the evolving game. Over time the NFL has changed the rules involving just about everything from horse collar tackles to the forward pass to the location of the goal posts. While the changes year to year are nearly unrecognizable, a look at the NFL 80 years ago compared to today reveals two completely different games. Golf hasn’t changed a bit. That can be considered good or bad, but it’s definitely contributed to the sense that golf is an antiquated sport. If the rules of golf were up for adjustment once every year (rather than once every four) then any rules controversies coming up could be solved in a timely manner. The common theme for these meetings should be the same one brought up earlier in this article: Why is this rule necessary, and does the penalty match the infraction? If a basketball player fouls a shooter while he is inside the three-point arc, the shooter gets two free throws. Not four, or six, but two. Advantage gained by rules infraction=penalty imposed. Likewise, the rules of golf should not be in the business of handing out two stroke penalties for inadvertent actions that give the player no discernable advantage whatsoever.


However, the problem with the rules of golf is more deeply rooted than can be fixed with just a little more flexibility. It’s in the attitudes of the people that write them. We’ve seen how golf has been so slow over the years to admit blacks and then the same with women. Heck, Augusta and the R&A didn’t even admit female members until 2012 and 2014, respectively. If golf and its rules are to survive, then we need a changing of the guard to a group who recognizes the importance of making golf an accessible game for all. The USGA especially is a representative body of its members and golfers in America at large. So, although at the moment its leadership may not be doing well enough to promote the accessibility of the game, through rules and otherwise, if we the golfers demand it loud enough, for long enough, the change we’re looking for will happen. While going through the effort to express righteous indignation over golf may sound childish and exhausting, preserving the game we love is not a spectator sport. The USGA has social media, and even though they may not respond all the time, they check it. They see what people are upset about. They see what the people want. But if we never tell them, how will they know?



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