The feedback period is over, and far from being perfunctory, golf’s ruling bodies actually responded to what they heard on this year-long listening tour. Monday the USGA and R&A announced some substantial changes to the initial rules they floated last March.
The new, modernized Rules of Golf, which go into effect in January, will be easier to read, easier to understand, and, hopefully, easier to follow. We’ve already seen changes to the rules that cost Lexi Thompson a major championship. Next New Year’s Day, the rest of the new rules, like the option of leaving in the flagstick while playing from the green or marking areas like desert and woods as hazards, will become official.
After opening the proposals up for feedback, the USGA and R&A put out a joint statement Monday that said: “While the majority of proposed Rules remain intact in the final version, several important changes to the initial proposals and further clarification of many Rules were incorporated.”
The biggest changes involve dropping. The original proposal eliminated the procedure where you measured one club length for a free drop and two for a penalty and then dropped the ball at arm’s length and shoulder height (See how complicated it gets? And that was an easy one). The proposal said you got 20 inches of release for a free drop and 80 for a penalty drop. Then you could drop the ball it from any distance with a recommendation of two inches.
After feedback, the rules will now read:
- Dropping procedure: When taking relief (from an abnormal course condition or penalty area, for example), golfers will now drop from knee height. This will ensure consistency and simplicity in the dropping process while also preserving the randomness of the drop. (Key change: the proposed Rules released in 2017 suggested dropping from any height).
- Measuring in taking relief: The golfer’s relief area will be measured by using the longest club in their bag (other than a putter) to measure one club length or two club lengths, depending on the situation, providing a consistent process for golfers to establish their relief area. (Key change: the proposed Rules released in 2017 suggested a 20-inch or 80-inch standard measurement).
“It wasn’t any one individual or one group,” Thomas Pagel, the USGA senior director of rules and amateur status, told The Post. “It was a pretty consistent theme. Some of the things we heard were: ‘OK, you’re saying I can drop it from any height with a recommendation of two inches. How do I know if I’m at two inches or not? What if it’s an inch and a half? When you get into long grass, am I dropping two inches off the ground or two inches off the grass?’ So there was some confusion and we were finding it challenging to address those concerns.
“We went back and said, ‘OK, our overall objective is to identify the relief area and get the player playing from that relief area as quickly as possible.’ We think we accomplish that with the knee-height drop. It’s easily identifiable.”
There was similar confusion about the 20 inches and 80 inches. Nobody wanted players carrying tape measures or arguing about whether an area was 20 or 21 inches from a spot.
“People understood the philosophy behind it,” Pagel said. “But the question was: ‘How am I going to do this?’ Club lengths was an easy measure. We said, ‘OK, the people have spoken and we’ve listened.’ So, I think we’re at a good spot with (dropping from) knee height and club-length measurements.”
Two additions to the proposed new rules include:
- Removing the penalty for a double hit: The penalty stroke for accidentally striking the ball more than once in the course of a stroke has been removed. Golfers will simply count the one stroke they made to strike the ball. (Key change: the proposed Rules released in 2017 included the existing one-stroke penalty).
Known by those of a certain age as the T.C. Chen rule (Chen lost the 1985 U.S. Open after double-hitting a chip and making quadruple bogey), this was an odd rule that needed to go. As Pagel told The Post: “Double hits don’t happen too often. One of things we heard from this feedback period is, ‘Why does the player need that additional penalty? Very rarely does this accidental hit lead to any benefit for the player.’ That’s true. So that was the lens through which we looked at this and said, ‘Yeah, there really shouldn’t be an additional penalty for this.’”
Finally, the USGA and R&A gave a nod to what a lot of club players and member-guest committees have been doing for years. This new rule states:
- Balls Lost or Out of Bounds: Alternative to Stroke and Distance: A new Local Rule will now be available in January 2019, permitting committees to allow golfers the option to drop the ball in the vicinity of where the ball is lost or out of bounds (including the nearest fairway area), under a two-stroke penalty. It addresses concerns raised at the club level about the negative impact on pace of play when a player is required to go back under stroke and distance. The Local Rule is not intended for higher levels of play, such as professional or elite level competitions. (Key change: this is a new addition to support pace of play.)
“Stroke and distance really slows down play, especially when you have people going ahead, looking for balls and then going back,” Pagel said. “We recognized that and really didn’t have an answer. So we asked for people’s input. What have we missed? And this is what we heard. It’s a local rule that gives a fairly significant area (to drop) with a two-shot penalty. But more importantly, it keeps play moving forward, which was our objective.”
David Rickman, the executive director of governance at the R&A, said, “We believe that the new Rules are more in tune with what golfers would like and are easier to understand and apply for everyone who enjoys playing this great game.”
Pagel agreed, saying: “We’ve had a fantastic dialogue with people from all levels of the game. We wanted to take the time to listen and understand all the feedback that we got. We feel like we’ve done that. The four (changes) that are highlighted are significant and all came as a result of what we heard from the golf community.”