R&A rules director David Rickman says belly putter ruling will come by 2016

David Rickman, R&A Director of Rules and Equipment Standards.
Courtesy of Rolex

At a recent Rolex media event in Scotland, I had the chance to speak with the R&A's Director of Rules and Equipment Standards, David Rickman. Over afternoon tea in the R&A's headquarters in St. Andrews, Rickman explained the motivation behind the latest revisions to the Rules of Golf, finding common ground with the USGA and the impending fate of the belly putter.


For those of us unfamiliar with the R&A, can you please explain what you're responsible for, and what your day-to-day duties entail?
From the R&A's perspective, we have three main committees that work on rules matters. We have a Rules of Golf committee that deal with the main playing rules, we have an equipment standards committee that deal with the rules about equipment, principally clubs and balls, and we have an amateur status committee that deals with any rules and regulations about amateur golfers as opposed to professional golfers, because there are certain limits on what can be won, which expenses can be paid, all these sorts of things. The work of people like myself on the R&A staff is to work with these three R&A committees, and in particular to then liaise with our opposite numbers at the USGA, because the USGA is the governing body for golf in the United States, but when we look at the game as a global game, as an international sport, I think everybody recognizes that golf needs one set of rules, and therefore a lot of our work is about talking with the USGA, meeting with their representatives, making sure that any rule changes that we make are agreeable to all people concerned and work both in the United States and in the rest of the world.

Is there any issue on which the R&A and the USGA do not agree?
We quite often can start with a slightly different perspective on a particular issue, and that can be based on particular circumstances in that country. But the whole purpose of our joint meetings is to air those different perspectives and ultimately reach a situation where we agree what the best solution is internationally and for the game generally. So yes, it would be wrong for me to suggest that we arrive at all meetings with a complete and absolute agreement as to what all the answers are, but by the end of the meeting cycle, we always work towards getting an agreed position. I think the process actually is healthy and it gives us an opportunity to confront and face up to any different perspectives that may exist, and ultimately, our end decision is better because of it.

So the USGA's rules are identical with those of the R&A?
Correct. But, that's not always easily achieved (laughs).

How do you decide which rules will be reviewed in each four-year revision cycle?
They come to both organizations from their respective groups. I'm not 100 percent familiar with the USGA operation, so I'll focus more on ours. I would imagine that theirs will fundamentally come through the state associations, but we will, for example, consult with all of our affiliated unions, 144 organizations around the world. We will write to all of them and say, how are the rules for you? Do you have any specific concerns? Do you have any suggestions? And that communication will go out towards the end of this year, year one of the four-year process.

But really, ideas can come from any source. It could be an individual, it could be a local club matter that by circumstance highlights a particular issue or flaw, and then as we discuss it, we may think, well, there's a more serious point here. Sometimes it could emerge in an international amateur event, sometimes it could emerge in a very high-profile professional event. But, in essence for us, the source of the issue is not the main point, it's the issue that's raised that's really at the heart of it, and that can come from literally anywhere. And then it goes through our process and it will come into the staff within the R&A, and we'll have a look at it and think, well, can we answer that? Is it highlighting a flaw or an issue with the rules? If it is, we'll take it to our rules committee.

If it gets past our rules committee, it then gets to the joint committee where the USGA are also there and we'll discuss it then. And really, it's almost like a filtration system, like panning for gold. Over the time, you constantly sift, and eventually you're left with the nuggets, and those are the ones that you then concentrate and try and work on. Our great difficulty is that the rules of golf are a bit like a jigsaw, and if you change one piece in isolation, you suddenly find it doesn't fit, so we're constantly talking about, are there any unintended consequences, because the rule change in isolation might make a lot of sense, but you have to look at the other pieces and say okay, if we change this, what about that?

So again, that's why we unashamedly take our time. And I think it also feeds into the self-regulating nature of the game, that golfers simply wouldn't be able to cope with constant rule changes coming their way. The four-year cycle, which has about a 60-year history to it, has emerged into quite a useful exercise in terms of the development of the rules, but has also given us the best opportunity we could have of people at least learning the essentials.

One of the highlights of the latest revision is a change to the rule regarding a ball moving after it's been addressed. Was that the result of some of the high-profile Tour players being unfairly punished during tournaments?
Generally on the professional tours, the green speeds would be running higher and the greens would be perhaps smoother. You then take those features and then have a windy period of time, and the issue gets highlighted. I think certainly my experience at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in 2008 convinced me, and then fairly quickly there were a number of other high-profile events where something happened, and I think generally people just thought, well, this is not right. We can fix this. The penalty doesn't fit the crime, it's unfair. And that doesn't do golf really any good, it doesn't do the rules of the game much good. To their great credit, the professional golfers accepted the situation as it existed, but I think it's a good example of a time where we go, okay, we need to make a change here. And that change I think has been generally very well received.

Let's talk about belly putters. A lot of people love the idea, a lot of players have been outspoken about banning them. Was the issue deliberately left unaddressed in this latest revision?
It's certainly on the docket for the next revision. It wasn't addressed in 2012 because the re-emergence of belly putting, this great surge of use that we've seen, came very late in the process. So if you can imagine the four-year process, really the last year is essentially an admin year, where we need to do the whole practicality of printing and distributing 2.6 million copies. So this surge that we saw effectively happened too late to be included in 2012.

Plus, we wouldn't want to rush it. It would be a significant change, it would have an impact on quite a lot of people. It's quite a contentious issue, as you rightly say. Some people think it's absolutely fine, others couldn't dislike it more. So for all of those reasons, it wasn't dealt with in 2012. It is very much on the agenda now.

Would you agree that the way that players are using the belly putters now is a direct violation of the rules as they stand?
The method of stroke is absolutely fundamental to the game, and we already say that you can't push, scrape or spoon in the rules. Golf is not field hockey. It's not croquet, you can't putt in a croquet style. We also say that you can't use a club in a billiard or snooker style. So again, we've got a long history of being quite specific about what we mean by a golf stoke, and really the consideration going forward is, does the anchoring of the club or the gripping of the hand somehow contravene or violate that basic principle. So, a bit of work to be done, lots of discussion still to be had, but we think it's important that people know that it is very much on the agenda, and if there is to be a change, it would potentially be made in 2016.

So there will be a resolution on whether or not belly putters are here to stay in 2016?
One way or another.

Popularity seems to have a lot to do with this decision, doesn't it? If less people were using belly putters, it seems that this issue wouldn't necessarily be discussed.
It certainly brought it back into focus. I think there have been concerns about this type of stroke for many years, but it was perhaps tolerated, if that's the right word, because it was used by only a very few number of people, so it was somewhat peripheral, it wasn't affecting the fundamentals of the game, so there's no doubt that this upsurge in use has given people pause for thought. How would we feel if 50 percent of all youngsters sometime in the future were anchoring their putters? So the surge of use is definitely part of it, but the ultimate decision will be taken on whether we think it's a fair or proper stroke.

What about pace of play? Tour players are talking about it and tweeting about it. What can the R&A do?
It's a problem throughout the game. It's certainly of concern to us. One of our constant factors about rules changes is, is this going to have a positive or negative effect on pace of play? So that is very much a part of our consideration now going forward. I think there's a big educational role that needs to be adopted. I think one of the big participation issues that we face is related to pace of play-the game is taking too long for people, so we need to try and address that, and the professional tours have a very important role to play there, because people copy what is being done and seen week in and week out on the professional tours. It's a challenge. We don't want to turn golf into a race, but on the other hand, we do want it to have a dynamism and activity to it that keeps both spectators and viewers engaged.