At last, common sense has the strong potential to find its way into golf's rule book.
That's what we found out when the public got its first look at what's being proposed as the USGA and R&A announced what would be the fifth major revision of the Rules of Golf since 1899. I wish the new rules were already in play.
Serious discussion and input on the proposed new modern Rules of Golf began five years ago. And it's understandable that there would be six months to review -- where both the United States Golf Association and Royal & Ancient are encouraging feedback from all levels of golfers around the world. Now, there will be a period to complete and publish the new Rules of Golf and eventually put the new rules into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. So we'll have to wait awhile to enjoy this new feeling of freedom.
The overall goals, according to the USGA, is that the new rules will be more easily understood and applied by all golfers, be more consistent, simple and fair, and reinforce the game's longstanding principles and character.
All three aspects above are important, of course, but what's different this time around are the first two -- that they're easier to understand, and more consistent, simple and fair. If adopted (and most of these changes seem like they will be), the number of rules would be reduced from 34 to 24.
Best of all, the new rules will be presented in an easier to understand format, written in plain English, not convoluted legalese. Currently, the rulebook contains hundreds of rules and sub-rules as well as a 500-page decision book. They're often difficult to understand with what seems like endless notes, exceptions and appendices.
Video: Ginella and Adams react to new Rules of Golf
I'm not sure how much these new rules will attract new players. Most beginners are just trying to make good contact and keep it on the course. They aren't that concerned about the rules.
But these changes could certainly help retain players and more importantly, perhaps, encourage more players to compete in tournaments. But the best takeaway from this is that the changes will make the game more enjoyable. And that's the bottom line.
(Update: In March, 2018, the USGA announced four tweaks to its proposed new rules.
On the new drop rule: Instead of the proposal to drop the ball from any height, it must now be dropped from knee height or higher. (Under the old rules, it's shoulder height.)
On taking relief: Instead of the proposal to drop from 20 inches to 80 inches, relief will be one club length for free relief and two club lengths for penalty drops.
A double hit will no longer be penalized. So, no more T.C. Chens. I like this because nobody double hits on purpose and the result usually isn't very good anyhow, which is penalty enough.
And finally, on balls out of bounds or lost, a new local rule that penalizes two strokes would replace stroke and distance, effectively speeding up play. A two-stroke penalty is no less penal, though, if you think about it, since the next shot after hitting a drive out of bounds would be the player's fourth shot, effectively the same as stroke and distance if the second drive were hit to the spot where the ball is dropped.)
My thoughts on the proposed changes:
10 great proposals for amateur and recreational golfers.
1. Accident forgiveness: Under the new rules, among other things, you would no longer be penalized if you accidentally move your ball while searching for it or accidentally move your ball or ball marker on the green. You wouldn't be penalized if you hit your ball, and it accidentally hits you or your equipment or a caddie or the flagstick. After all, what advantage are you gaining?
2. Speaking of the flagstick: Basically under the new rules, you could putt with the flagstick in and unattended. This is a terrific change to speed up the game. No longer on a 50-footer do you have to wait for someone to tend the flag, and you can complete tap-ins without taking out the pin. Also, if you play a ball from on the green and it strikes another ball, no penalty. This means it's unnecessary for everyone to mark their balls before you putt (however, you can certainly request it if someone is in your line).
3. New relaxed drop procedure: You no longer have to drop the ball from shoulder height. Again, not only is this more fair, but it speeds up the game. Basically, you can place the ball as long as you hold it above the ground without touching anything growing or natural (1 inch is recommended). This saves time because the ball in most cases won't bounce or plug, meaning you can get it right the first time without having to re-drop. Furthermore, the drop area for relief is no longer measured by club lengths, but by fixed measurements: 20 inches for a free drop and 80 inches for a drop with penalty. (See note above about tweak on this rule.)
4. Changing of terms: Through the green, casual water, hazards – these are all archaic, because they weren't descriptive. Instead, we'll have non-mysterious terms like "general area," "temporary water," and "penalty area," which more accurately describes what's going on.
5. Penalty areas expanded beyond water: This is huge because committees are now encouraged to mark other areas besides water as red penalty areas. Remember the old "desert rule?" Now this can include forests, jungles, lava rocks, etc. I remember last year during a Golf Channel Amateur Tour event, one player in my group hit four provisionals off the tee. We took 25 minutes to play the hole and we had to look for all five of his shots. In the end, everyone was confused as to what ball he wound up playing. If the area on the left, where there was high grass, had been marked as a hazard (there were no homes there), he simply would have dropped near where the first drive had crossed the red line, and we would have moved on as a much happier group.
In addition, under the new proposal, committees are encouraged to mark most hazards as red instead of yellow, the latter of which is much more restrictive.
6. New bunker rules: Under the new proposal, you can remove any loose impediment from a bunker. You can also touch the sand (with a few exceptions), but more importantly, if you want (from an unplayable lie, for example), you can drop outside the bunker with a two-stroke penalty. For folks who have difficulty out of the bunker, this is a godsend. And for players who find their ball unplayable, no longer do they have to drop inside the bunker from shoulder height, which often leads to a buried lie, although dropping inside the bunker with a one-stroke penalty is still an option, but now you can do it just above the sand.
7. Faster play encouraged: How's this? Instead of laboring on a hole and making an 18 on a hole, the new rules would encourage committees to set maximum strokes per hole. It could be double par or triple bogey, for example. How wonderful would it be to not shoot yourself completely out of a tournament based on one hole? In addition, the new rules encourage ready golf and a 40-second limit when it's your turn to play.
8. Eliminating the fourth option on a lateral hazard (now called a red penalty area): Most golfers don't know about the fourth option anyway, which many referred to as the equidistant rule, meaning you could drop on the other side of a lateral water hazard as long as it wasn't any closer to the hole than where the ball crossed the hazard in the first place. So under the proposal, there would only be three options: relief and 80 inches from where it went in; keep the point between you and the hole and go back as far as you want; or replay the shot.
9. No penalty for grounding your club in a penalty area: In short, this means if you accidentally touch the ground with your club or hand, say in what we now know as a water hazard, there's no longer a penalty. You will also be able to touch or remove loose impediments. What you can't do is touch or move the ball. That's still a penalty. I love this because it takes much of the ambiguity out of the old rule.
10. No penalty if you accidentally cause your ball or mark to move on the green: This really is just common sense. Under the new rules, you just replace it. There's no advantage gained by accidentally moving it, so there's no need for penalty.
What I'm lukewarm on
Three minutes instead of five minutes to search for a lost ball: On the surface, this certainly appears that it will speed up play, but what if only having three minutes instead of five means you're less likely to find your ball, and you have to go back to the tee when you lose a ball just off the fairway? That would slow the game down certainly because the stroke and distance penalty for a lost ball isn't being changed. I say keep it the same as it is now. Finding balls in the rough can be tricky in tournaments when you don't have spectators or marshals to help you.
Repairing spike marks on greens: I'm mostly in favor of this, but I do worry that players will take advantage of this by excessively tapping down their lines. The question then becomes, "what is it excessive?" This will surely lead to some disagreements in amateur tournaments and even casual play. Any fear, however, that this will slow the game down is unwarranted since the 40-second limit to play your shot should take care of those concerns.
Damaged equipment: The new rule proposes that you can continue to play with damaged equipment even if it was damaged in anger. To me, fits of rage on the golf course should be discouraged. I agree that if you damage a club in the course of a shot you should be able to continue to use it if you want, but if you wrap your putter around a tree in disgust, then you should be penalized by having to take that club out of play.
Distance Measuring Device allowed: I'm lukewarm on this because it's really a non-factor when it comes to casual or amateur tournament play. In the last few years, rangefinders both laser and electronic, have been allowed in every tournament (per local rule) I've played in, so there's really no effect there for most amateur competition. On the PGA Tour, however, it's a different story.
What more could have been addressed
Out of bounds: Nothing in the proposals talks about OB stakes (Again, see above update). I've long proposed that OB stakes be treated as a lateral hazard to speed up the game. What's the difference between hitting a ball out of bounds or in a hazard? At least one stroke since you have to go back to where the last shot was played if you hit beyond the white stakes. Yet the errors of hitting into a hazard or out of bounds are the same for the most part. Plus, if we start marking deserts, forests and other undesirable areas as red, why not out-of-bounds areas, too? (More: USGA still looking at stroke-and-distance penalties)
Of note, however, there would have to be a rule that prohibits you from hitting from the area of what used to be out of bounds, like somebody's yard. In this case, perhaps, the penalty areas could be marked as red with a white tip on them, indicating you can take a drop outside the penalty area, but you can't play from inside the penalty area (a yard, e.g.) as you can from one that's marked just red.
Relief from a divot: This was one that the great Jack Nicklaus wanted addressed, but I can see why the USGA and R&A don't want to open Pandora's Box. How would we define a divot? How deep does it have to be? What if the divot is replaced? What if it's sand-filled? Basically, players could declare almost any undesirable fairway lie to be in a divot, so a rule allowing relief would basically allow players to bump their balls. In amateur tournaments where there aren't rules officials on every hole, this could create a lot of heated disagreements and slow down play, so maybe we should just play it as it lies as we always have. (More: Ryan Lavner on why there was no new "divot rule".)