9 essential things you need to know about the new USGA/R&A rules changes

February 28, 2017

The Rules of Golf are changing for the better. 

Here at GOLF.com, we’ve covered the governing bodies’ proposed rules “modernization” (aka, simplification) from top to bottom. Josh Sens explains how the changes came to be and what they mean on a broad scale. Michael Bamberger argues that the tweaks are a good start, but there’s still more work to be done. Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s top rules guru, joined us in our studio to touch on some of the key points of the overhaul. For more detail still, here’s a list of the primary proposed changes.

It’s a lot of information to digest, so in this space we’ve done the heavy lifting for you. Here are nine essential things you need to know about the new rules changes:

1. The headline-grabbing change relates to the “DJ Decision.” To recap, Dustin Johnson was hit with a one-shot penalty in the 2016 U.S. Open under Rule 18-2. His ball on the putting green moved after he had addressed it, and while he gained no discernable advantage, he was assessed one penalty stroke. The proposed change will eliminate the penalty for accidentally moving a ball on the green. Yes, this rule was being looked at before the Open debacle, but that public incident certainly expedited the process.

2. You’ll no longer be penalized for other players’ spike marks. Under the current rule, you aren’t allowed to fix spike marks on the putting surface before putting, even though the marks were caused by the groups ahead of you. That’s about to change. In your high-stakes matches, you will now have a level playing field literally and figuratively.

3. Your lost ball is now officially lost after three minutes. After that duck-hook into the hay, you’ll now have only three minutes to search for your ball, instead of five. The idea here is to speed up play. Should help on the pro tours, but we’re guessing as long as recreational golfers are paying $4 per ball, they’re going to search, and search, until they find theirs.

4. Drops are getting an overhaul. Players currently have to take drops from shoulder height. Under the new rules, you can drop from as close as one inch from above the ground. Better lies from drops means more bogey saves! And fewer scenes of golfers chasing dropped balls down shaved banks.

5. You can keep your damaged clubs in play, even if a fit of rage caused said damage. After your third lip-out in a row, you slam your putter into your bag to get some frustration out. Under the current rules, if your putter is damaged in any way, it can’t be used for the rest of your round. No longer! You’ll now be able to use a bent, dinged or damaged putter if you want — and, who knows, you may even start putting better with it.

6. Goofs happen on the greens, and sometimes they deserve to be forgiven. Under the current rules, if your putt hits yourself, your caddie, a player tending the flagstick or the flagstick itself, you’re dinged with a one-shot penalty. Under the proposed changes, there is no longer a penalty for the accidental hit. (Heck, you can even putt with the flagstick in the hole!) As it should be. 

7. All is also forgiven if you accidentally hit the ground or drop a club in a bunker or hazard. All good. Play on!

8. The rules are going to be easier to read and understand and access, with technology playing a greater role in illustrating do’s and don’ts. The revised rules, the USGA says, will be written in a “modern, plain style that uses more common words, shorter sentences and explanatory headings and that ends the use of male-only references.” To aid this process, the governing bodies are asking for your help. From now to August 2017, you can offer feedback, thoughts and critiques about the new changes to the USGA or the R&A. The goal is for the rules to be implemented on Jan. 1, 2019.

9. Will the proposed changes radically change the game for your regular foursome? Doubtful. Is anyone calling penalties on themselves for their ball moving on the green after addressing it? Are players keeping a stopwatch while hunting in the bush for a wayward drive? Who’s not already tamping down an egregious spike mark in the way of a birdie putt? In competitive rounds, some of these changes will be significant, but for most of us, it’s business as usual. Just be sure to remember the most important rule of all: Have fun out there.