Best of 2019: The Rules of Golf ruled golf, for better and worse

December 27, 2019
Patrick Reed took a two-stroke penalty while leading the Hero World Challenge on Friday.

A whole new rules rollout, Tiger Woods’ 15th major title, two epic international events and so much more. Here’s a look back at some of the best moments of 2019.

Best of 2019: The Rules, for better and worse

This time last year, we at GOLF headquarters eagerly awaited the turning of the calendar, knowing what strangeness lay ahead as the new Rules of Golf dropped. Bryson DeChambeau had teased he’d be putting with the pin in, and there were plenty of questions about who might follow his lead. There was related intrigue focused on who might run afoul of the changes first, and in what manner. It all seems like a million years ago. That may be a testament to just how much we’ve talked about the Rules of Golf since; they quite literally ruled golf in 2019, for better and worse.

Let’s start with the good: The changes themselves. Change is hard, and change in golf is especially so, but the USGA’s rules were a positive development overall. Not without growing pains, of course: The pin-in thing took some getting used to, and penalizing some of the game’s best players is never an ideal situation. But one year in, most players have developed a flagstick ethos and know when and where they’ll want the pin in. After some protestations (some more graphic than others) we all adjusted to the knee-high drop rule. The three-minute search rule still seems harsh for amateurs on unfamiliar courses (lacking spotters and galleries) but it speeds things up, for sure. Once the kinks had been worked out, this was a two-thumbs-up success.

To the bad, then: As entertaining as rules snafus can be to us viewers, it’s probably not a good thing for them to overshadow the competition. There was Rickie Fowler, who first had to absorb an unfortunate penalty en route to winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open (bad, but he moved on) and a shank/bad drop penalty combo he picked up a couple weeks later (bad, but we moved on) followed by an incident where he mimed a knee-high drop from his rear end (bad, but I think golf has finally moved on).

But plenty was bad in non-Rickie categories, too: Jesper Parnevik’s what’s-a-mulligan-anyway incident. Kendall Dye’s what-club-you-hittin’ incident. Lee Ann Walker’s 58 penalty strokes incident. Harold Varner III’s assembling-a-driver-on-the-course incident. Russell Henley’s wrong-Pro-V1 incident. Team USA’s score-in-the-wrong-spot incident. None of them reflected well on the game of golf, which relies completely on its rules but never wants those rules to be the thing people focus on.

How ‘bout the ugly? People forget good and bad; they remember ugly. In 2019, that meant single issues that represented larger trends; career-altering stuff. Matt Kuchar had already started to suffer in public approval rating after underpaying his caddie last fall, but when he mishandled two high-octane rules situations — getting opportunistic in match play against Sergio Garcia and pushing too far pursuing a dubious ruling at Memorial — it didn’t reflect well on him.

The slow play stuff got ugly, too. First it was J.B. Holmes plodding away through the final round of the Genesis, and as the season wore on it became Bryson DeChambeau, too. Both their names are, for now, inextricably linked with slow play — and both have been on the receiving end of some spicy criticism from Brooks Koepka. That’s a spot nobody wants to occupy.

But the year’s biggest rules story came at its least likely event: the Hero World Challenge. Golf Channel cameras captured what looked to be Reed using his wedge to swipe extra sand away from behind his ball. This crystallized exactly where we sit when it comes to rules. We can easily get past innocent mistakes. We can get past carelessness. If it’s someone we especially like, we can get past just about anything (remember when Phil Mickelson was allegedly going to be ostracized for his conduct at the 2018 U.S. Open?). But we cannot get past someone trying to pull one over on us and the rest of the field; sneakiness may be the greatest sin. Nor did Reed’s villainous persona do him any favors. But somehow, his actions in a waste area in the Bahamas became a dominant storyline at the Presidents Cup a week later. Over playing-captain Tiger Woods. Over the Cup itself. It was a final reminder: In 2019, the Rules had juice.

Time to see what 2020 has in store.

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