By Tyler Olson
The USGA and the R&A lit up the golf world on Wednesday with a list of proposed rule changes to modernize the game. Some are great and some are questionable, but overall, they represent a welcomed rethinking of the rules without changing the integrity of the game.
Here are some of the more notable proposals:
- Change in how golf balls can be dropped: When taking a drop, penalty or otherwise, a player will be able to drop the ball from any height above the ground instead of just at shoulder height. I suppose the goal is to prevent the ball from rolling so far when its dropped on the side of a hill or something like that, but I can see it being taken advantage of. The specific language of the proposal says, “The only requirement is for the player to hold the ball above the ground without it touching any growing thing or other natural or artificial object, and let it go so that it falls through the air before coming to rest; to avoid any doubt, it is recommended that the ball be dropped from at least one inch above the ground or any growing thing or object.” This is basically placing the ball. I think it’s a bad rule in that a player in the rough who might get a free drop or need to take an unplayable due to some sort of obstruction will be able to essentially choose their lie after the drop. This is the kind of little rule quirk that could end up affecting the outcome down the stretch at a PGA Tour event or God forbid a major. While it theoretically makes the game easier (golf being too hard is one of the reasons attributed to its decline), it’s an unnecessary change.
- Reduced time for ball search: The maximum amount of time allowed to search for a ball is reduced from five minutes to three minutes. This is great for the PGA Tour and recreational golf, both of which desperately need to be sped up. The PGA Tour has galleries and spotters with their groups so a ball that isn’t found in three minutes probably won’t be found. In recreational golf, it’s not worth looking for a ball for that long. The only issue I can see with this rule in how it may affect junior and amateur tournaments. Those events don’t have the galleries and spotters available, so looking for a wayward drive sent into a cluster of trees would be left up to only the competitors. As a junior golfer, there were many shots from both me and my competitors that took more than three minutes to find because we were the only ones looking. Overall, however, this change will be very good for the game.
- Repairing spike marks: If this rule takes effect, players will be able to tap down spike marks after years and years where the golf’s governing bodies inexplicably refused to allow it. This rule change is at least a couple decades overdue. As with any new idea, however, there are some concerns. William McGirt told USA Today, “Tapping down spike marks I think is going to lead to slower play. There are some guys that will walk a 40-footer and tap every single one of them down.” Despite the possible issue on Tour, this is a good rule.
- Flagstick: There will no longer be a penalty for hitting the flagstick in the hole on a putt. Sure. This makes sense. Why should have that been a penalty in the first place? However, I will not be putting with the flagstick in any time soon. The greatest sound on earth is the sound of the golf ball rattling around at the bottom of the cup and leaving the flag in would deprive me of that beautiful music.
- Relaxed rules in penalty area: This proposed rule would allow you to ground your club in penalty areas and move loose impediments. This one will be controversial depending on your perspective. If you want to make golf more accessible, faster, easier and more fun, in an effort to grow the game, you’ll be all for this. If you value the tradition of golf and believe that penalty areas should be used to penalize players for bad shots, you won’t like the rule. I personally will probably never get used to grounding my club in a penalty area, but in the spirit of growing the game, I’ll get being this rule as a major step towards the modernization of the game.
- Shot clock: Committees should adopt a pace of play policy and it is recommended that they use a 40-second shot clock to speed up play. This is great. This directly addresses one of the largest problems in golf (pace of play) and it does it with specific recommendations. Of course, this rule should be applied with discretion. While it’s preferable a group in the middle of the pack on a Friday at a PGA Tour event keep moving, if the final pair on a major Sunday are on the eighteenth hole, it would be unfortunate to see the tournament decided because one person took 42 seconds to hit his 20-foot putt for the win.
While there are going to be some growing pains and unforeseen pitfalls regarding any new rule that the USGA and the R&A adopt, these are some great steps to changing this game that’s been so resistant to change for so long.
Here’s a quick list of some of the other proposed changes:
- No more penalty for ball moving during search
- No penalty for accidently moving ball on putting green (shout out Dustin Johnson)
- No more penalty if your ball in motion is accidently deflected by you, your caddie, or your equipment
- Reducing the drop area for free relief from one club length to 20 inches
- Fixed length of 80 inches for penalty drops
- Giving the committee the option to mark all penalty areas with red stakes so lateral relief is always allowed
- No more opposite side relief from penalty areas
- Damaged clubs during a round can continue to be used during a round even if damaged in anger
- Caddie can no longer line up a player while the player is taking his or her stance
- The USGA and R&A will now recognize “maximum score” stroke play where a player cannot take higher than a certain score on a hole, typically double par.
Golf has always been slow to adapt. While the issues with the rules aren’t as morally unfortunate as the offenses of the past – not allowing women or African Americans into clubhouses – they do threaten the survival of the game by making golf inaccessible and convoluted. We all love this game and want it to be around for years to come, and these rule changes will help it do that.
The full list of proposed changes, which are open for a six-month public comment period then will theoretically be finalized in 2018 and take effect in 2019, is on the USGA website here.
Tyler Olson is a blogging and social media intern for the Game of Golf Institute. He is a freshman at Penn State University majoring in broadcast journalism and political science. Tyler enjoys telling stories about his glory days as a high school golf phenom (that is debatable) and sneaking on his local golf courses after dark and hitting range balls because #TheGrindNeverStops. Follow him on Twitter @TylerOlson1791 and the Game of Golf Institute’s official account @mygog