Commentary On Proposed Golf Rule Changes

proposed golf rule changes
You will probably get relief when the bunker tractor runs over your ball.

The USGA and R&A have released some proposed major changes to the rules of golf. In general, the proposed rules seem intended to make the game more fair, to reduce confusion, and potentially to speed up play. I think that a good many of them bring the rules more into line with how people actually play the game. Below are a few comments on the proposed golf rule changes.

The rule change that concerns me the most concerns the reduced time searching for lost balls.

Lost Ball

  • Reduced time for ball search: A ball is lost if not found in three minutes (rather than the current five minutes) after you begin searching for it.

The intent of this rule clearly is to speed up play. On the surface, it seems logical that if players spend less time looking for balls, the total amount of time spent on a round will be reduced.

However, if players spend less time looking, fewer balls ultimately will be found. This will result in more players returning to the previous spot for the stroke-and-distance penalty on a lost ball. That could actually lengthen a round.

Reduced time searching for a lost ball makes sense only if combined with changing the stroke-and-distance penalty to one or two strokes. If a ball is lost, players should agree on a likely spot, drop and play on with penalty stroke(s).

I actually don’t know anyone who plays with the “stroke and distance” penalty. On crowded public courses, heading back to the previous spot will at the very least draw nasty looks from the folk in the following group. Everyone drops, adds a shot and moves on.

 (1) Ball at Rest Accidentally Moves

  • Accidentally moving your ball while searching for it: There is no longer a penalty.
  • Accidentally moving your ball or ball-marker when it is on the putting green: There is no longer a penalty.
  • New standard for deciding if you caused your ball to move: You will be found to have caused your ball to move only if that is known or virtually certain (that is, it is at least 95% likely that you were the cause).

These seem fair, but I wonder about the utility of the third rule. If there is no longer a penalty for accidentally moving a ball, why does it matter if you caused it to move? The real question, it seems to me, is to determine whether the movement was accidental or deliberate.

(2) Replacing a Moved or Lifted Ball

  • New procedure when you don’t know the exact spot where your ball was at rest: You must replace the ball on its estimated original spot (rather than drop the ball at that spot); and if the estimated spot was on, under or against growing, attached or fixed objects (such as grass), you must replace the ball on, under or against those objects.

Commonsense. Put the ball back where you think it was, without improving your lie.

(3) Ball in Motion Accidentally Deflected

  • Your ball in motion accidentally hits you, your equipment, your caddie, someone attending the flagstick for you or a removed or attended flagstick: There is no longer a penalty (such as when your ball bounces off a bunker face and hits you).

I don’t know anyone who has actually used the old rule. If you hit something, it was just bad luck — or good — and you played the ball where it landed.

(1) Dropping a Ball in a Defined Relief Area

  • Relaxed dropping procedure: The only requirement is that you hold the ball above the ground without it touching any growing thing or other natural or artificial object, and let it go so that it falls through the air before coming to rest; to avoid any doubt, it is recommended that the ball be dropped from at least one inch above the ground or any growing thing or object.
  • Defined relief area: The ball needs to be dropped in and played from a single required relief area (whereas today you are required to drop a ball in one area, it can roll away, and you need to re-drop if it rolls to any of nine specific places).
  • Fixed measures define the relief area: You use the fixed distance of 20 inches or 80 inches to measure the relief area (no longer using one or two club-lengths); this can readily be measured by using markings on the shaft of a club.

It seems to me that the dropping procedure has been easing for some time now. I remember being taught that I had to drop the ball over my shoulder. Then it was in front of me at arms length.  The new procedure probably will save some time because balls dropped from waist height are less likely to skip off and require a re-drop.

I am not convinced about the relief area being “readily measured by using markings on the shaft of a club.” Are people actually going to draw lines on their shafts? Will those markings need to be checked by some official before a competitive round? Perhaps before a competitive round, players should be issued a bit of string cut to the proper length.

(3) Embedded Ball

  • Relief for embedded ball in the general area: You may take relief if your ball is embedded anywhere (except in sand) in the general area (which is the new term for “through the green”), except where a Local Rule restricts relief to the fairway or similar areas (this reverses the default position in the current Rules).

The current rule says that you get relief in the fairway only, unless a Local Rule says otherwise. This change seems to bring things more into line with the way the game is actually played. On the public courses I play, grounds typically are not as well tended as private or resort courses. When my home course gets wet, everything is wet. Balls plug in the rough as easily (and perhaps more easily) than on the fairways. If players can’t unplug a ball in the rough, they would have to carry a special “Shovel Wedge” to dig it out.

(4) Ball to Use in Taking Relief

  • Substituting another ball: You may continue to use the original ball or substitute another ball, whenever you take either free relief or penalty relief under a Rule.

This is another rule that seems to bring the rules of golf a little more into alignment with the way it actually is played. Although I am aware of the current rule, I don’t pay much attention to which ball I’m using. Nor does anyone else I know. I also know more than a few guys who have a separate clean and scruff free “putting ball” that they swap out once they mark the “playing ball” on the green. Among my superstitious playing partners, if a ball behaves poorly an produces a particularly bad shot, it is replaced immediately, regardless of the rules. No one insists on a penalty for the superstitious.

c. Special Rules for Specific Areas of the Course

(1) Putting Green

  • Putting with flagstick left in the hole: There is no longer a penalty if you play a ball from the putting green and it hits the unattended flagstick in the hole.

I really like this proposed rule change. When playing by myself, or with a casual group, the flag usually is left in the hole. We all know that we should take a penalty when holing out, but leaving the flag in saves time. I would not be surprised to learn that the USGA has done a study and determined that the entire flag-removal-and-replacement ritual is a significant contributor to slow play.

  • Repairing damage on the putting green: You may repair almost all damage (including spike marks and animal damage) on the putting green (rather than being limited to repairing only ball-marks or old hole plugs).

Players of heavily used (and often under-maintained) muni and public access courses will appreciate this. While upscale courses generally are smooth and putt true, my munis are more often subject to the whims of fortune. While not an every hole occurrence, it is not unusual to find a patch of chewed-up turf between ball and hole. Your score should not be determined by variability in the quality of greens keeping.

  • Touching your line of putt or touching the putting green in pointing out target: There is no longer a penalty if you or your caddie does either of these things, so long as doing so does not improve the conditions affecting your stroke.
  • Replacing your ball if it moves only after you had already marked, lifted and replaced it: Anytime this happens on the putting green, you replace the ball on its spot – even if it was blown by the wind or moved for no clear reason.
  • Your caddie marks and lifts your ball on the putting green: There is no longer a penalty if your caddie does this without your specific authorization to do so.

These three changes are more in line with the “no harm, no foul” approach that most of my playing partners take to golf. Of course, few of us have ever actually had the opportunity to play with a caddie. Public courses in my area don’t have caddies.

(2) Penalty Areas

  • Penalty areas expanded beyond water hazards: Red- and yellow-marked “penalty areas” may now cover areas the Committee decides to mark for this purpose (such as deserts, jungles, or lava rock fields), in addition to areas of water.
  • Expanded use of red penalty areas: Committees are given the discretion to mark all penalty areas as red so that lateral relief is always allowed (but they may still mark penalty areas as yellow where they consider it appropriate).
  • Elimination of opposite side relief option: You are no longer allowed to take relief from a red penalty area on the opposite side from where the ball last entered the penalty area (unless a Committee adopts a Local Rule allowing it).
  • Removal of all special restrictions on moving or touching things in a penalty area: There is no longer a penalty if you touch or move loose impediments (such as leaves, stones and sticks) or touch the ground with your hand or your club in a penalty area.

The USGA and R&A have applied more common sense here. Designating penalty areas for lateral relief could speed up the game. When I coached high school girls golf, I abused my power and created a local rule that all penalty areas and out-of-bounds were played as lateral hazards. There was always a league playing immediately behind my girls, and I did not want a group of beer-swilling, cigar-smoking ruffians getting angry about the “slow playing” girls in front of them (although, they were honestly no slower than anyone else).

(3) Bunkers

  • Removal of special restrictions on moving loose impediments: There is no longer a penalty if you touch or move loose impediments in a bunker.
  • Relaxed restrictions on touching the sand with your hand or club when your ball is in a bunker: You are now prohibited only from touching the sand (1) with your hand or club to test the condition of the bunker or (2) with your club in the area right behind or in front of the ball, in making a practice swing or in making the backswing for your stroke.
  • New unplayable ball relief option: For two penalty strokes, you may take relief outside the bunker by dropping a ball back on a line from the hole through where your ball was at rest in the bunker.

I really like all of these changes. The penalty for touching something in a bunker always struck me as a “gotcha rule.” If you’re not trying to improve your situation, what difference does it make?

Being able to take relief outside a bunker is a relief (humor intended). Few things in golf are worse than having a ball embedded in the vertical face of a bunker. Four strokes later, you’re still trying to unbury it and get the ball up and over. Most players I know in such an impossible situation take a few swings, then pick the ball up and toss it on the green out of frustration.

A rule that I would like to see that surely was not even considered is the ability to move a ball in a bunker (or anywhere) to a safe spot. Some of the munis I play have bunkers with significant patches of rocks in the sand. Playing a ball out of those areas constitutes a physical threat — not only to the player taking the swing, but also to anyone else in the area.

And speaking of physical threats, where is the poison ivy rule? If your ball lands in a patch of poison ivy or other hazardous vegetation, you should get a free drop just as you would if it landed near an alligator. I realize that USGA officials don’t play on courses with poison ivy just off the fairway, but many of us do.


d. Equipment You are Allowed to Use

(1) Damaged Clubs

  • Use of damaged clubs: You may keep using any club that is damaged during the round, no matter how it happens (for example, even if you damaged it in anger).
  • Replacement of damaged clubs: You may not replace a damaged club, unless you were not responsible for causing the damage.

(2) Damaged Ball

  • Substituting another ball for a cut or cracked ball: You may substitute another ball if your ball in play on a hole has become cut or cracked while playing that hole; but you are no longer allowed to change balls solely because the ball has become “out of shape.”

I don’t see many “cut” balls these days. I have also never seen a ball cracked during a round. However,  quite a few of the cheaper balls that I play develop little “strings” that peel off along the edges of the dimples. Do those constitute “cuts”? They can’t be good for ball flight. And what about seriously scruffed balls? Those fifty-cent balls I play don’t fare well after impact with a tree or cart path.

Unfortunately, I have seen a great many damaged clubs over the years. Some were the result of anger control issues. More often, the damage is the result of hitting an unseen rock or tree root. Underestimating the space necessary to clear a branch or tree trunk on a swing has led to quite a few untimely club deaths.

Can you replace a club because you’ve hit an unforseen rock just under the surface of the course or in a bunker? You’re responsible for causing the damage, but seriously … do they have to deal with that sort of thing at Oakland Hills?

(3) Distance-Measuring Devices

  • DMDs allowed: You may use DMDs to measure distance, except when prohibited by Local Rule (this reverses the default position in the current Rules).

The march of technology.

And the general lack of caddies.

e. How You Prepare for and Make a Stroke

  • Expanded restriction on caddie help with alignment: Your caddie is not allowed to stand on a line behind you from the time you begin taking your stance until you have made your stroke.

This should speed things up on the LPGA. I have noticed lots of those players using their caddies to help them line up practically every shot.

For 99% of golfers, however, it makes no difference whatsoever.


f. Promoting Faster Pace of Play

  • Encouraging you to play promptly: It is recommended that you make each stroke in no more than 40 seconds – and usually more quickly than that – once it’s your turn to play.
  • Playing out of turn in stroke play (“ready golf”): This has always been allowed without penalty, and now you are affirmatively encouraged to do so in a safe and responsible way for convenience or to save time.
  • New alternative form of stroke play: The Rules recognize a new “Maximum Score” form of stroke play, where your score for a hole is capped at a maximum (such as double par or triple bogey) set by the Committee, so that you can pick up and move to the next hole when your score will be at or above the maximum.
  • Other changes to help pace of play: The simplified dropping procedure, reduced time for ball search, expansion of penalty areas, greater use of red penalty areas and ability to putt with the flagstick in the hole should all help pace of play as well.

Ready golf has been a welcome trend. When paired with a group, “we’re playing ready golf, right?” is often the first thing said after introductions.

Ready golf with four walkers is as fast as the game gets.

Maximum Scores is another area where the rules are moving in alignment with the way I see the game played. When a series of miscues and misfortunes conspire to drive a score into double par,  a great many golfers I know will simply pick up their ball and say “that’s enough for me.” Sometimes, if they reach the point of no return in the fairway, they’ll drop the ball on the green and putt out.

I assume that they record a double par or worse on their card, but I have never asked. As far as I am concerned, another player’s score is between the player and his God.

g. Insisting on High Standards of Conduct and Trusting Player Integrity

  • Playing in the spirit of the game: New provisions are added to reinforce the high standards of conduct expected from all players on the course and the Committee’s discretion to disqualify players for serious misconduct.
  • Code of player conduct: Committees are given authority to adopt their own code of player conduct and to set penalties for the breach of standards in that code.
  • Elimination of need to announce intent to lift ball: When you have good reason to lift your ball to identify it, to see if it is cut or cracked or to see if you are entitled to relief (such as to see if the ball is embedded), you are no longer required first to announce to another player or your marker that you intend to do so or to give that person an opportunity to observe the process.
  • Reasonable judgment standard: When you need to estimate or measure a spot, point, line, area or distance under a Rule, your reasonable judgment will not be second-guessed based on later evidence (such as video review) if you did all that could reasonably be expected under the circumstances to estimate or measure accurately.

Eliminating the need to announce the lifting of a ball should save time in competitions, but won’t make any difference for regular rounds. I’ve never seen anyone do call a competitor over before checking a ball.

I like the fact that the committee could give someone a penalty for being a jerk, but it make no difference for the vast majority of golfers. I assume that my home course has some sort of committee, but I have no idea who they are. Not many keep a handicap, anyway, so scores don’t really matter except as a matter of pride.

3. Limitations in Revising the Rules

Taken together, these and the other proposed changes should help achieve our Rules Modernization goals and objectives by:

  • Eliminating many restrictions (and thus eliminating many penalties) that have been perceived as unfair or unnecessary and/or that have required close and controversial judgments to be made;
  • Making various procedures easier to use, such as how to take relief and what to do when a club is damaged during play;
  • Using the Rules affirmatively to help address the pressing issue of pace of play; and
  • Reinforcing the game’s traditional emphasis on both expecting high standards of conduct from all players and trusting them to act honestly and reasonably.

Taken as a whole, I think the proposed golf rule changes meet the goals of the USGA: eliminating some restrictions; making procedures easier to use; addressing pace of play; and embracing high standards.

I don’t think they’ve gone far enough, though.

As I mentioned above, the stroke-and-distance penalty for lost balls, and balls out-of-bounds needs to be changed to a mere stroke. Simultaneously, search time could be reduced to two minutes. That combination should do wonders for pace of play. It also will bring the rules of the game more into line with how people actually play.

Eliminating “distance”would improve fairness and equity. Why should a player get a stroke and distance penalty when the ball disappears in plain sight? Numerous are the times when I have watched my ball — or a partner’s ball — hit the fairway, only to be unable to find it upon arrival at the spot. With an unlucky bounce, the ball found its way under some debris on or just off the fairway, sank into deep rough or plunged down a chipmunk or gopher hole. It is a rub of the green, but not one that should require trudging back to the previous spot to try it again (especially when there’s a group on the tee growling at you for slowing their rounds).

Another change I’d like to see is an expansion of the definition of “abnormal ground conditions” or “ground under repair” to include ground that should be under repair but isn’t. Perhaps the superintendent hasn’t gotten to it yet. Or perhaps the Superintendent will never get to it because fixing that spot is not in the budget.  A players’s score should be a reflection of skill, not of a greenskeeper’s budget or talents. Having played in a PGA Tour pro am, and on courses prepped for USGA Championships, I know that players at many public courses are handicapped by the conditions under which they play. Golf’s one-percenters do not regularly find themselves playing off rock hard, grassless dead spots in the middle of the fairway.

On a similar note, players should get relief from an unrepaired, unsanded, unreplaced divot in the middle of a fairway as “ground under repair.” An inch or two may be all that separates my ball from my competitor’s in the middle of the fairway, and yet mine is sitting high, and his is in a gash in the ground. No skill is measured by these circumstances; there is nothing my competitor could have done to avoid the awful lie. Rubs of the green are a part of golf, but in the case of untended fairways, the cause is not luck, but poor maintenance.

In my experience, when this occurs, nearly everyone just rolls the ball out of the divot; no one complains. My compatriots know instinctively that the circumstances are unfair and are not a reflection of the golfer’s skill. They’ll often say something sardonic like “They don’t have to play out of these at Oakland Hills.” It is true; there are unrepaired sections on munis that are cratered like the moon; I saw none of that at Oakland Hills.

The better the course, the less this rule comes into play. In that sense, it keeps play equitable between different levels of courses.

At the end of the day, the USGA and R&A have done a good thing with these proposed golf rule changes. I just hope they continue the process.


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2 thoughts on “Commentary On Proposed Golf Rule Changes”

  1. “…I realize that USGA officials don’t play on courses with poison ivy just off the fairway, but many of us do.”

    Let’s lobby for an approved “Local Rule” that allows Free relief from poison ivy and poison oak. Every course should be able to determine if these plants are prevalent and possibly where. If the USGA folks play at Winged Foot and there is no poison ivy within 2 miles, fine, no local rule. Hudson Mills? Yes, put it into effect.


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