Hold that PhD – new rules aim to simplify the game of golf

From January 1st, whatever your level or where you play, there’s a revised rulebook

Drop it: Pádraig Harrington of Ireland takes a penalty drop in Augusta in 2009. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Drop it: Pádraig Harrington of Ireland takes a penalty drop in Augusta in 2009. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

 

If you’ve ever felt like you needed a law degree or a mathematical qualification to play a simple round of golf, one which involves hitting a small white sphere from point A to point B with the ultimate aim of getting the ball into the tin cup in as few strokes as possible, then the governing bodies – ie the R&A and the USGA – of the sport hope they’ve (finally) made life easier.

Because, from January 1st, players playing the game, regardless of their levels and where they are playing, will have a new, revised, simpler set of golf rules to abide by.

Cut down from 34 rules to 24, with a swathe of changes to bring common sense onto the golf course but also to speed up the game, the revised rules have been seven years in the making, going through a consultation process and review that attracted reviews and opinions from golfers worldwide.

The review process teed-off in 2012 and was initiated to ensure easier understanding and implementation of the rules to make the game more attractive and accessible for newcomers.

As David Rickman, the R&A’s executive director of governance, put it, the new rules came about “after a collaborative and wide-ranging review process which has embraced the views of golfers, rules experts and administrators worldwide . . . the new rules are more in tune with what golfers would like and are easier to understand and apply.”

Five of the key rule changes

1. The Knee Drop
If, like Pádraig Harrington, you actually went to the trouble of practicing how to drop a ball from shoulder height, the chances of a poor lie were probably less likely. In his case, he’d place a coin on the ground and try to hit the metal with his practice drops. Most golfing mortals, though, wouldn’t be so disciplined and would often curse their lie after a drop from a height when it mattered.

The new rule change simplifies matters hugely. Rather than dropping from shoulder height, players are required to drop the ball from knee height instead of shoulder-high whenever a drop is specified for relief. In making the drop, the ball must stay within the designated relief area, either one club-length or two club-lengths, depending on the type of relief.

So, it is no longer required to make a relief drop from shoulder height. In fact, it is not allowed. Instead, under Rule 14-3, players must drop from knee height (which means, the height of your knee when in a standing position) – either by standing, and bending down until the ball is at knee height; or, alternatively, by kneeling down on one knee and dropping from knee height of the other “standing” leg.

2. The Double-Hit (is gone)
The double-hit change has come a little late – all of 34 years – for TC Chen, the Taiwanese golfer who suffered just such a blip in the final round of the 1985 US Open. Chen – who had to endure the moniker “Two Chip” for the rest of his career – led by four shots in the final round at Oakland Hills before his transgression cost him a one-stroke penalty and he finished a shot behind champion Andy North.

Under the new rules, there is no longer a penalty for hitting a ball multiple times on the same swing. Up to now, a player incurred a one-stroke penalty for hitting the ball more than once on the same swing (most likely to occur on chips and putts), recording the original shot and the penalty stroke. Now, if a player unintentionally hits the ball more than once, it counts as one stroke. The player only counts the intended shot and continues to play the ball from where it came to rest (Rule 10-1a).

3. Take Three (minutes’ search time)
Even the greatest of players have found that five minutes wasn’t always sufficient time to find a ball after an errant shot into thick rough or bushes. In the 1986 US Open at Shinnecock Hills, Jack Nicklaus’s wayward shot on the 10th hole of his first round took five minutes and 21 seconds before it was found. The search limit had expired, so the ball was deemed lost.

Under the new rules, the Golden Bear – and everyone else – will need to be even quicker in searching for their ball. The time for a ball search has been reduced from five minutes to three minutes, which the rule-makers believe is “more consistent with the underlying principle that golf is to be played in a prompt and continuous way, without long pauses in play.”

There is a concern that more pernickety golfers will spend so much time gardening that it could slow down the pace of play

One upshot of the new policy will likely result in more “lost balls” during a round, but the more pertinent impact is that the rule will speed up play. With search times reduced to three minutes (from the time of first getting to the area and commencing the search), the rule is also aimed at encouraging players to play a provisional ball where they believe there is a chance their ball may not be found.

4. Leave the flagstick in . . . or not
Putting is a science all of its own, but there could also be something scientific in whether or not to leave the flagstick in the hole when putting, which is now permissible under the new rules. In fact, Bryson DeChambeau – a physics nerd – has stated he’ll more likely leave the flagsticks in the cup, even on short putts, and an old research article by former NASA scientist (and short game guru) Dave Pelz would suggest there is merit in the theory. “Leave the flagstick in whenever the rules allow,” he suggested.

Up to now, you couldn’t leave the flagstick in the hole when putting on the green. Now, you can. Players will be permitted to leave the flagstick in the hole while playing a shot from the green, and there is no penalty if the ball strikes the flagstick. In the past, players had to pull the flagstick from the hole or have a caddie or fellow competitor tend it before the ball struck.

Note, however, that it is still against the rules to position the flagstick in such a way as to create a benefit. You can’t intentionally lean the flagstick forward, for example. The flag must be placed upright in the centre of the hole unless a player finds that it is leaning in a certain direction when arriving at the green. In such a case, the player could leave the flagstick as they find it or centre it in the hole.

5. Gardening leave
The rules on repairing imperfections – such as spike marks – on greens have been relaxed, with players allowed to fix a wide range of damage to the putting surface.

While the more understanding nature of the rule should help with player frustration, especially among late-starters in a competition who must putt on greens damaged by other players, there is a concern that more pernickety golfers will spend so much time gardening that it could slow down the pace of play.

The new rule allows players to repair ball marks; shoe damage, including spike marks, scrapes and indentations caused by equipment or a flagpole; old hole plugs; turf plugs; seams of cut turf; scrapes or indentations from maintenance tools or vehicles; animal tracks; or embedded objects such as stones, acorns or tees. Basically, any unintended damage made by another player or outside agency. Players can also remove loose sand or soil on the green’s surface or on the teeing ground, but not anywhere else on the course.

However, players should also note that some old codes of honour remain intact. For instance, players are still not allowed to repair imperfections caused by normal maintenance practice such as aeration holes or vertical mowing; irrigation; rain or other natural forces; weeds; bare areas; or areas of uneven growth of grass.

Hot-headed players who bend their putter over their knee and change its playing characteristics can continue to use it

One for the hacker
Golf’s governing bodies have introduced a new local rule to speed up play, for use in club and social golf but not in tournaments or high-level competitions. If a player hits a ball out-of-bounds or loses a ball, the general rules still require a player to return to the spot of the previous stroke and take a one-stroke penalty (the traditional stroke-and-distance requirement). Where the local rule is in play, there is the option which provides time-saving relief, where the player can take a drop in the nearest spot of the fairway (within two club lengths of the edge of the fairway), no nearer the hole than where the ball is deemed to have crossed the out-of-bounds line, with a two-stroke penalty. The same local rule applies to a lost ball.

Charl Schwartzel of South Africa breaks an iron during the first round of the 2016 PGA Championship in Springfield, New Jersey. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images
Charl Schwartzel of South Africa breaks an iron during the first round of the 2016 PGA Championship in Springfield, New Jersey. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

One for the hot-head
Ben Crenshaw broke his putter in a Ryder Cup. Shane Lowry did it during an Irish Open. They weren’t alone and, up to now, those hot-headed acts meant they had to ditch the damaged club. Crenshaw used a 2-iron, Lowry a sand wedge. But the rules have changed to allow a player to keep using a damaged club, or repair that club, during a round. However, the damaged club cannot be replaced by another club unless it was damaged mid-round by an outside influence, a natural force or by someone other than the player, his partner or caddie. So, hot-headed players who bend their putter over their knee and change its playing characteristics can continue to use it.

No change (unfortunately)
We’ve all done it, at some stage. You hit what you think is the ideal tee-shot down the middle of the fairway and arrive up to your ball only to discover it has found a comfortable resting spot . . . in a divot. And any players hoping that the governing bodies would provide a bit of latitude to players punished for finding the fairway will have to shrug their shoulders and get on with it. Tough luck! There is no change to the old rule, which deems that you must play the ball as it lies – even in a divot, or maybe especially in a divot. Play it as it lies. Same as it always was.

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