USGA, R&A unveil sweeping plan to simplify, modernize the Rules of Golf

Tuesday February 28th, 2017
2:06 | Rules of Golf
New Rules: Reduction of "ball moved" penalties
Thomas Pagel, senior director of rules and amateur status for the USGA, discusses the proposal to reduce or eliminate penalties for players who accidentally move the ball.

The Rules of Golf, though passed down from a lofty perch, are not at all like the Ten Commandments. For one thing, there are more of them. For another, the authors welcome reader feedback. Witness this latest gesture from the guardians of the game.

In a joint move Wednesday morning, the USGA and R&A unveiled a preview of proposed new Rules of Golf, a major step in an ongoing effort to make those rules easier to understand and apply, and more reflective of the way the game is played today.

The plan, which represents the most radical rules overhaul in more than three decades, calls not only for more than 100 modifications to existing rules and sub-rules but also for a more streamlined rule book, with the governing bodies reducing the 34 core rules to 24. One of the proposed tweaks should please folks who thought that Dustin Johnson got hosed when his ball moved inadvertently on the green at 2016 U.S. Open. Another proposed change will be good news to anyone who thinks that five minutes is too long to look for a lost ball. Yet another would allow you to tamp down spike marks in your putting line. (You can bone up on the 36 most significant proposed changes here.)

Over the next six months, you're also invited to offer your opinions and suggestions, which the governing bodies will take into account before finalizing them.

"We are genuinely interested in hearing from golfers around the world," says Thomas Pagel, senior director of Rules & Amateur Status for the USGA. "We'll definitely be refining our proposed changes, and we want to know what the public has to say."

MORE RULES  |  Bamberger: Sensible start, but work to be done  |  Tour Confidential: Our experts chime in on the changes  |  The 36 most significant changes and what they mean for you  |  9 essential things you need to know about the rules changes

Unlike ancient tablets, golf's rules aren't set in stone. Traditionally, in fact, they're updated every four years, quadrennial revisions that tend to result from scrutiny of specific incidents and decisions.

The latest proposed changes arise from something different. They take a broader view, and they are more sweeping. They're the outgrowth of a project, launched in 2012, that the governing bodies call rules "modernization."

Modernity means different things to different people.

To golf's powers-that-be, it means staying hip to the present without cutting vital ties to the past.

"The essential character of the game will be the same," Pagel says. "You're still trying to get a little ball in a hole in the fewest stroke possible."

But that's happening in a world convulsed by change. Take the way people consume information.

In the digital age, modernity means producing rules as something more than words on paper. It means increased reliance on visual aids like graphics, photos and videos.

It means simpler language that explains not just the rules but also the reasoning behind them, and is easier to translate into the 30-plus languages in which the rules currently appear.

It means greater use of the second-person singular pronoun.

As part of the proposed changes, the governing bodies plan to publish a new Player's Edition of the Rules that forgoes all those formal references to "the player" and instead addresses readers colloquially as "you."

As in, "Your ball in motion accidentally hits you, your equipment, your caddie, someone attending the flagstick for you or a removed or attended flagstick: There is no longer a penalty."

That's a condensed version of one of the proposed new rules, and it points to yet another aspect of modernization: revising rules that clash with common sense.

To many players and fans, for instance, the infraction applied to Johnson at Oakmont last year was a serious head-scratcher. His ball barely moved on the 5th green during the final round of the U.S. Open. He didn't mean to move it. And that movement gave him no discernible advantage. No harm, no foul. And yet Johnson was slapped with a one-shot penalty.

Under the proposed changes, the rule that many of think of as the DJ Decision will be eliminated, though, as Pagel points out, the governing bodies were already looking hard at that rule long before L'Affaire Oakmont.

Such scrutiny is part of a longer-term review designed to address a range of contemporary issues, such as developments in technology, environmental stewardship and pace of play.

Hurry up and find your golf ball. You will have less time than before.
Getty Images

If you think, for instance, that golf takes too long, you'll be glad to know that the proposed changes include such get-a-move-on-it provisions as simplified procedures for dropping a ball in a relief area, and a reduction in the maximum time allotted for lost-ball hunting from five minutes to three.

If you've always found it silly that you can't repair spike marks or animal tracks in your putting line, more good news: Under the proposed revisions, that prohibition would go away.

You get the picture: Some significant changes are afoot.

This is not the first time the governing bodies have shaken up the Rule Book. Since 1899, when the first universally accepted Rules of Golf were published, major revisions have come in roughly 30-year cycles. Those cycles have ushered in such advents as the 14-club rule (before its introduction, in 1938, some players had the controversial habit of using up to 30 specialized clubs in a single round); the elimination of the stymie (1952); and the setting of a time limit (10 seconds) for a ball hanging on the lip to fall into the hole.

Golf is now in the midst of another of those cycles.

A six-month public feedback period begins today.

The new rules will be finalized in 2018, and will take effect Jan. 1, 2019. That might seem like a long way off. But modern life moves quickly.

The future will be here sooner than you think.

The USGA and R&A unveiled a preview of proposed new Rules of Golf, a major step in an ongoing effort to make those rules easier to understand and apply.
Illustration by Paul Crawford

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