First there was a draft. Then feedback. Then revisions.
Like Tiger Woods's return to competitive form, updating the Rules of Golf has been a process.
But that process is now complete.
Having listened to input from golfers around the world, the game's governing bodies Monday unveiled a final version of golf's new rules, set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.
Among other changes, they include fresh directives for how to take a drop, and an alternate solution for dealing with a lost ball or a ball knocked out of bounds. Clearer and more concise, the new rules are also kinder and gentler, with penalties softened in the name of pace of play and common sense.
"It's been a long process but a gratifying one," said Thomas Pagel, the USGA's senior director of rules and amateur status. "Now comes the fun part where we get to share with the world everything that has been done."
The world had a chance to have its say starting in March 2017, when the governing bodies put forth proposed revisions and opened them up to a six-month period of public feedback. During that time, more than 30,000 comments and suggestions poured in. That input had some sway.
While the majority of the proposed rules remain unaltered in the final version, there are several notable changes.
Take the dropping procedure. Last year's proposal suggested that players be allowed to drop from as low as two inches off the ground, down from shoulder-height. Bad idea, the public said. Sure, a lower drop would help keep play moving by reducing the chance of a ball bounding out of the relief area and forcing a player to drop again. But two inches was too low. It was practically like placing the ball. If you were standing across the fairway from your playing partner, how could you be sure that they were dropping at all?
"A number of comments we received from all levels of the game wanted to see a certain amount of randomness maintained so that when you drop a ball, you're not sure what kind of lie you're going to get," Pagel said. "But how do you ensure that randomness? Do you take it back to shoulder height? It was really about finding a balance of maintaining that randomness while also allowing the player to identify a relief area, drop there as quick as possible and play on."
The compromise? When taking relief, golfers will now drop from knee height.
The guidelines for measuring a relief area have also changed. Under the new rules, golfers will be allowed either one club-length or two-club lengths, depending on the situation (if you're taking relief from a cart path, for instance, you'll get one club length; if you're dropping from a lateral hazard, you'll get two). Last year's proposed revisions suggested a 20-inch or 80-inch standard.
One of the underlying principles of the new rules is that golfers should not be penalized for unintentional acts that result in no benefit to them. To that end, the penalty for a double-hit (known to some fans as a "T.C. Chen," in honor of the golfer whose chances at the 1985 U.S. Open came undone when he struck his ball twice with a single swing) has been eliminated, which was not the case under last year's proposed revisions. Golfers will simply count the additional stroke they made while striking the ball.
That revision is in keeping with another change in the rules, which eliminates the penalty for a ball in motion striking a player.
"They really mirror each other in the thinking behind them," Pagel said. "Say a ball bounces off a bunker face and comes back and hits you in the chest, it's accidental. And it's certainly not to your benefit."
Another of the notable changes will resonate with any golfer who ever suffered the double-edged indignity of losing a ball and then having to walk back to hit the shot again. The new guidelines include a local rule giving committees leeway to do away with the stroke-plus-distance penalty. That would give golfers the simpler, less time-consuming option of dropping in the vicinity of where their ball went out-of-bounds or missing, under a two-stroke penalty. This rule won't apply to professional tournaments or other elite-level competitions. It's meant to keep things moving in everyday club and recreational play.
"The concern we kept hearing was, ‘I can't go back because the golf course is already log-jammed and my going back is bad for pace of play,'" Pagel said. "This local rule essentially replicates what would have been a decent shot with stroke and distance while keeping the player moving forward, which as we know is critically important."
Some of the modifications in this final version aren't so much changes as clarifications. One of them involves allowing golfers to repair spike marks in their putting line.
"From all levels of the game, what we heard was that if you let people repair damage, they'll either take forever to do it, or essentially build a trough between their ball and the hole," Pagel said. "But if those are valid concerns, there are already rules in place to address them. If a player takes two minutes to clean up the line, then the pace of play rule takes effect. If the player improves more than what is reasonable, there is already a rule that says you can't improve your line of play."
In concise and easy-to-grasp language, the new rulebook makes it clear that repairing damage from a person or an animal is permitted. You just can't take all day doing it. Nor are you allowed to repair agronomic blemishes or other imperfections real or imagined, in the grass.
All of these revisions will now go into a rulebook that incorporates a host of other proposals put forth last year, which include a range of relaxed rules on greens, bunkers and penalty areas as well as the elimination or reduction of penalties for accidentally moving a ball.
It's a lot to digest. But with all the i's dotted and t's crossed, the governing bodies will now get busy getting the word out to golfers around the world.
The rules will be published, digitally and in print, in three versions: a full edition, an abridged players' handbook, and an official guide, replete with rules interpretations, committee procedures and other details. All of these will be translated into more than 30 languages.
Already, 30 "how-to-apply" videos and a summary of the principal changes are now available at usage.org/rules. Additional education tools will be released in September, in plenty of time for us all to get ready for Jan. 1.