10 of the Biggest Golf Rule Changes to Know
During this interim period where the NFL season ends and the MLB season begins, many sports fans are left with a void that basketball, hockey, and miscellaneous televised athletic events themselves cannot fill, and although a lot of the U.S. does not even have its golf courses open for the season, the PGA 2018-2019 season has been well under way. We can focus more on the televised golf tournaments each weekend now, and y’all may have noticed some things seemed different, even if you could not quite identify what it was. Well, you are right on because A LOT of changes went into effect on January 1, 2019 - eight pages worth of summarized changes, to be exact - and those are only what the USGA and the R&A believe to be the major rule changes after a wide-ranging, collaborative review process taking into account golfers’, rules experts’, and administrators’s views from across the globe.
These reviews take place regularly and have their own goals and motivations, but there have only been a handful of times in history where the USGA/R&A unified reviews take a step back to critique the rules with a broader stroke. The group determined now is one of those times for two main reasons: (1) incremental revisions overtime have made the rules very complicated to where the purpose of the rule is sometimes lost or unclear; and (2) many of the rules do not even apply to most typical golfers to where they fail to support the real issues of the game. The far-reaching revisions the group settled upon, in theory, should preserve the character of the game and keep all golfers in mind at all levels of play around the world. In my opinion, I think they did a good job.
*Shout-out to my dad, Rick, for giving me the head’s up on no. 6 when we were watching the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am during our weekly Sunday sauna, which inspired me to write this article.*
Of the thirty-seven major rule changes of golf for 2019, here are ten important rules intended to modernize the game that took effect and are bound to make you feel some kind of way (Note: The New Rule is quoted in the numeric header):
1. Standard for the Ball Moving - “The player will be found to be the cause only when it is known or virtually certain (meaning at least 95%) to be the case.”
Previously, in deciding whether a player caused his or her golf ball to move, the USGA used a “more likely than not” standard of proof, which translates to a greater than 50 percent chance that the player was the cause of the ball moving. The newly instituted higher standard in measuring the weight of the evidence should make it more likely that a player will receive a favorable ruling and greatly reduces or virtually eliminates the penalties players would otherwise receive. Moreover, this rule change stands alongside other ball movement penalties that are now eliminated entirely (i.e., when the player accidentally moves the ball during a search or on the putting green). This should place less pressure on the player and takes away awkward subjective decision-making on the association’s part.
2. How to Drop the Ball - “The ball must be dropped straight down from knee height (the height of the player’s knee when in a standing position).”
The old rule had players stand upright and drop the ball from shoulder’s height an arm’s length away from their bodies. Why was that the rule? Admittedly, I have no idea what the “legislative history” of this rule is, but from my perspective, there seemed to be a wide opportunity for unnecessary inaccuracies to creep their way into the game with it, and it overcomplicated the processes of taking relief when grouped together with other related rules (e.g., measuring the relief area size, which was also changed). By dropping the ball from a height closer to the ground, the ball will be more likely to plant a landing that more closely matches the true intention behind taking relief - allowing golfers to avoid hazards while keeping the ball closest to its original point without getting closer to the hole.
3. Pace of Play - “Recommends that players make each stroke in no more than 40 seconds, and usually in less time.”
This is strictly intended to improve the pace of play, which the “modernisation initiative” holds as one of its priorities to revise the product and increase mass appeal, namely because no such rule existed before. The old version of the rules gave no recommendation for time in between strokes. Think of this as golf’s equivalent of baseball’s pitch clock or basketball’s shot clock.
4. Caddie Help - “A caddie may lift and replace the player’s ball on the putting green without the player’s specific authorization to do so.”
Here is another example of eliminating a penalty entirely, for this action had a 1-stroke penalty if it was done without the player’s specific authorization. In effect, this should (a) make the players happy because it is one less thing for them to worry about, (b) improve the pace of play because a player-caddie duo may have developed their game plan strategy or their own language, vibe, whatever you like to call it, and (c) improve the caddie’s status within the game’s actors since it gives them another opportunity to help give the player the best chance at success.
5. Replacing a Ball on the Putting Green - “The ball must always be replaced on its original spot, even if it was blown by the wind or moved for no clear reason.”
Formerly, when the ball moved after it had already been lifted up and replaced, that ball could only be replaced if a player or “outside agency” caused it to move. Thus, it would be played in its new spot. We do not need to worry about that anymore, though! There is something to be said for the human element in sports - rather, the conditions element here - but revising this rule just seems right to me. It is totally fair that the place where the ball lands after the player hit the ball is the place from which the player should take the next shot. End of story. As it was enforced, it was an excess rule that served no real purpose to the game, and the modernization mindset includes “deregulation” or simplification, but I can see why golf purists might have issue with this.
6. Putting with an Unattended Flagstick in the Hole - “No penalty if a ball played from the putting green (or anywhere else) hits the unattended flagstick in hole.”
Translation: Not only can a player choose to leave the flagstick in the hole but the penalty is relaxed from a loss of hole or 2-stroke penalty to no penalty whatsoever when they elect to do so! This, like many of the rule changes, is intended to speed up the game because we will not have to wait for the players themselves or someone else, such as their caddie, tend to the flagstick and pull it before the ball could strike it. It is important to note that the flagstick cannot be leaning in either direction unless it was naturally doing so because angling it could certainly create an unfair advantage.
Some people do not mind this rule change because they do not see it affecting the game that much, but others are more leery of the change. Reportedly, particular studies claim that players have a statistically higher chance of getting the ball to drop in the hole or coming to rest near the hole with the flagstick left in compared to when the flag is removed. I discussed this with my dad, and we came to the conclusion that yes, there are times where leaving the flag as it is can help players at certain distances with certain shots, but overall, it is unlikely that this change will negatively affect the game. What do y’all think?
7. Distance-Measuring Devices - “ The use of DMDs is allowed, unless a Local Rule has been adopted prohibiting their use.”
Can I get a “heck yes”? Golf is moving into the future and permitting players to use technology in the game! Unless there was a local rule in place that said otherwise, distance-measuring devices (DMDs) were prohibited. So, the revised rule essentially flips the old rule on its head to give DMDs the default green light.
Why now? Well, we, as consumers and fans and viewers of the game, tend to prefer games where there is a lot of offense, and golf’s equivalent of a strong offense is a low stroke count. Furthermore, the players are more likely to be that much more accurate in their shots with technology’s help. Therefore, the quality of the game should improve as well as the mass appeal since we rely on technology in so many other aspects of our life, especially the younger generations. Admittedly, we millennials may rely on technological advances a bit too much, but if the technology is available, we might as well use it to our advantage, right? If this does not speak to the modernization of the game, I do not know what does.
8. Playing in the Spirit of the Game - “Explains and reinforces the high standards of conduct expected from players and gives Committees the discretion to disqualify players for serious misconduct.”
This change, though seemingly subtle, codifies previously accepted responsibility allocations while shining light on the USGA’s new importance of player conduct. The past rule expressed no standards of conduct, but it did indirectly give Committees discretion to disqualify players for serious misconduct. Now, Committees have an express rule to point toward if it chooses to act upon this power, which can speed up disciplinary processes and give the Committees more peace of mind in knowing that they can act themselves. Therefore, because Committees are expressly granted this discretionary power, so long as they do not abuse this power, it will be difficult for players to successfully fight their decisions.
9. Player Code of Conduct - “Committees are given authority to adopt their own code of player conduct and to set penalties for the breach of the standards in that code.”
As stated in the previously discussed rule, Committees had an indirect power to disqualify players for serious breaches of etiquette, but they could not dish out lesser penalties for conduct that was poor but did not rise to the level of a serious breach warranting disqualification. Now, Committees can impose such lesser penalties like a 1-stroke or 2-stroke penalty for breach of the code of conduct it develops. It is likely that we will not see Committees shying away from acting upon this rule change, but one downside is that we may witness uneven penalties imposed from event to event that players previously did not need to worry about. They will have to be specially educated on each Committee’s standards.
10. Player’s Reasonable Judgment in Estimating & Measuring - “When determining a spot, point, line, area or other location under a Rule, a player’s reasonable judgment will not be second-guessed based on later evidence (such as video review) if the player did all that could be reasonably expected under the circumstances to make an accurate estimation or measurement.”
Yay for this shift in authority! For those familiar with golf already, y’all can recognize what a huge deal this revision is because the prior rule was that a player’s judgment was given zero weight or deference. The Committee’s decision was the end-all-be-all in determining the accuracy of measurements and estimations, but the modern rule now gives deference to the player’s reasonable judgment. In addition to allocating the power and responsibility to the player, which should satisfy players, the revision should also speed up the game because the Committee will not need to take the time for video review for every accuracy call.
The most important key here, though, is the trust instilled in the relationship between the rule-makers and the actors in the game of golf. The integrity of the game is critical for any sport, and because of that, we should not expect to see players taking advantage of holding this deferential authority. If a player’s judgment is unreasonable, they would receive backlash for sure, and the Committee would then have authority to make the judgment call itself. Above all, I think golfers respect the game and want to preserve its greatness through the modern era.