Peter Kostis: Why It’s Time to Rewrite the Golf Rulebook

September 6, 2016

This article appeared in the September issue of GOLF.

As I write this, it’s been a month since Dustin Johnson’s U.S. Open win was nearly overshadowed by the USGA’s rules debacle at Oakmont, and I’m still shaking my head about it. The decision to penalize Johnson for supposedly making his ball move on the fifth green was just plain wrong—as was making him wait until after the round to apply the penalty. Golf is supposed to be a gentleman’s game, the only game in which competitors police themselves. Yet at Oakmont, we saw that even when you do the right thing—as Dustin did by discussing the incident with a rules official the moment the potential infraction occurred—the USGA sees you as guilty until proven innocent. That doesn’t sit well with me. (I’m just glad D.J. won comfortably, so that the penalty stroke didn’t keep him from raising the trophy that Sunday.)

In addition to updating the “Ball at Rest Moved By Player, Partner, Caddie or Equipment” rule (18-2), which went into effect at the start of this year, the USGA also decreed that you may no longer post scores for handicap purposes if you play by yourself. It’s another example of the governing bodies looking over our shoulders, like Big Brother. Apparently, they don’t consider golfers to be trustworthy. So we have an issue: Golf is either the pristine, righteous game they proclaim it to be, or it’s not—in which case the USGA and R&A look like ambulance chasers, eager to find fault with you at every turn. The latter mentality mocks everything the game is supposed to stand for.

I certainly understand the need to protect the integrity of competition by calling rules infractions accordingly. But you’ll have a hard time convincing me that a ball moving one millimeter on a putting green gives a player an unfair advantage. And let’s abolish the use of high-definition replays for rules infractions. If an issue can’t be resolved with the naked eye at the time it (allegedly) happens, then the so-called penalty obviously didn’t affect the integrity of the competition.

Let’s remember why we have the Rules of Golf in the first place: They’re meant to help us. In their next revision to the game’s bylaws (which unfortunately won’t happen until 2020), the USGA and R&A should think hard about making convoluted rules like 18-2 more simplistic and straightforward. If a given rules situation doesn’t adversely affect the competition—if it doesn’t give someone an advantage or disadvantage—then I say, “Play on!”