From the fine folks who brought you the anchoring ban, groove-gate and the Dustin Johnson debacle, there comes good news: With this week's joint announcement by the USGA and the R&A that proposed rule changes and simplification are afoot, pros and hackers alike have something to celebrate. It's a great start, but the ruling bodies haven't gone far enough. Here are five more rules that need amending — stat!
1. Rule 27-1(a) -- Ball Out of Bounds; Stroke and Distance
You hit the gentlest cut toward to an OB zone. Your ball hits a stone, and trickles just across the white stakes, which you don't discover until you've walked 230 yards from the tee to your ball. The Rules assert that you must walk back to the tee and reload—a penalty of both stroke AND distance. Tragic. There's your ball—you've got a clear shot, on cushy turf—but the rules say go back and start over. You don't like it, and neither does the group behind you.
Hogwash! "You're penalized less for whiffing your tee shot than you are for making solid contact and hitting it out of play," says CBS Sports golf analyst and Top 100 Teacher Peter Kostis. "Out of bounds should be played as a lateral hazard rather than stroke-and-distance. The current penalty is too severe. Also, playing OB areas as lateral hazards would speed up play. Many recreational golfers already play OB areas as a lateral hazard for that reason. That and the fact they are too embarrassed to walk back to the tee while another group is waiting there!"
2. Rule 13 and Rule 25 -- Ball Played As It Lies; Abnormal Ground Conditions
Probably the oldest, simplest rule in golf is "play is at it lies." Yet we've thoughtfully carved out hundreds of exceptions since 1744, including the ever-popular burrowing animal hole example. So why aren't we granted relief from divot holes in the fairway, including sand-filled divots?
"This one is ridiculous," Kostis says. "If a sand-filled divot isn't ground under repair, then I don't know what those words mean. Imagine if I'm playing in a group behind Gary McCord and McCord hits a good drive to the middle of the fairway and then hits a 7-iron to the green, creating a deep divot. If I hit an identical drive and land in the same spot, I'm denied the same playing conditions he had. If a cart tire had created the rut, I would get relief, but because the hole in the ground was made by a golfer, then I can't. How does that make sense? Golfers get relief from unusual conditions and those conditions should include divots."
3. Rule 27-1(c) -- Ball Lost; Not Found Within Five Minutes*
*(Yes, we know the governing bodies have proposed slashing the allotted search time to three minutes, but that's STILL too much time. Here's why.)
In a game that old-timers used to play in two-and-a-half hours, why we did ever allow a full five minutes to search for a lost ball? For starters, balls, especially in the early feathery era, cost a small fortune. Our predecessors weren't going to give their search missions that easily. Today you take the full five minutes because the penalty for losing a ball outside a marked hazard is so severe (there's our old nemesis again: stroke-and-distance) that we desperately use up every allotted second. As with an out-of-bounds shot, if you strike your ball and can't find it, you have to take golf's version of a perp walk: that humiliating stroll back to where you started.
The ruling bodies have proposed cutting back the search time from five minutes to three. That will certainly speed up play, but it misses the whole point of the problem. Cut the time back to one minute -- and change the penalty from stroke-and-distance to a drop next to the spot where you last tracked your ball. If I top my 3-wood into a bush on a Scottsdale course, and we all can see it entered, do we really need to paw at the bush for three minutes, where we might find a ball … or the business end of a rattlesnake? Just drop next to the spot you judged to be closest to where the ball disappeared, hit—and move on.
4. Rule 6-6(b) and Rule 6-6(d) -- Scoring in Stroke Play; Signing and Returning the Scorecard and Wrong Score for the Hole
Golfers are supposed to have integrity. When Bobby Jones was once commended for calling a penalty on himself for something that only he saw happen, he replied, "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank." So why are the penalties so harsh for failing to properly sign a scorecard or for signing an incorrect scorecard? We're talking DQ -- golf's version of the death penalty. Why punish someone so severely out of proportion for the size of the mistake?
After Roberto DeVicenzo bogeyed the 72nd hole at the 1968 Masters, he assumed he had tied Bob Goalby and the two would play off the next day. Unfortunately, his playing partner, Tommy Aaron, mistakenly marked that DeVicenzo had made a 4 on the 17th, instead of the 3 he actually carded. DeVicenzo signed his card without noticing the error. Moments later it was brought to light. The Rules of Golf stated he had to keep the higher score, once he signed for it. "Such a stupid I am," said the 45-year-old, who was celebrating his birthday that day.
In truth, the affable Argentine was fortunate. At least he earned second-place cash. Had he signed and turned in his card with a score lower than the one he actually made, he would have been disqualified. Why does golf retain such antiquated scoring rules at any level? I understand the whole honor/civility/gentlemen thing that is imbued in golf, but such penal scoring procedures have no place in today's game, whether at the Masters or at your club championship. Allow players to fix mistakes, from signing scorecards to putting down the correct numbers -- and at the very least, eliminate the dreaded DQ from consideration for any of these violations.
5. Rule 10-1(a) and Rule 10-2(a) -- Order of Play; When Starting Play of Hole
"Your honor, your honor," said match referee Lou Loomis (Brian Doyle-Murray) to Judge Elihu Smails (Ted Knight) in the classic film Caddyshack. Who hits first on a given hole isn't something we think about too often. Most of us toss up a tee and whoever it points to after it lands gets to lead off the round. After that, the low scorer on the previous hole is first up on the next tee.
Should it be that simple, however? I say no. My opinion was shaped by the late John P. Frazer, a top amateur golfer who objected to Rule 10-1 in a Sports Illustrated article from May 1958: "The rule which gives the winner of the hole the so-called privilege of driving first is the one golf rule I would change. To my mind, that's a handicap. He should have the privilege of driving when he wants to, so if he is of a mind to, he can observe the action of the wind and take advantage of learning from the other fellow's shot."
Frazer made his case in a piece titled, "The Question: If you could change one golf rule, which would it be?" (Among the other respondents were architect Robert Trent Jones and future Hall of Famer Ken Venturi.) Chances are we'll be asking this same query of golfers in 2058.