Rules of Golf: Revisions a sensible start but there’s more work to be done

February 28, 2017

Well done, governing bodies. Your proposed changes to the rules—simpler language, streamlined options in the various penalty phases, more allowance for weird on-course events—make sense from start to finish. They were also necessary. The USGA and the R&A rule with the consent of the governed. We, the people, including Dustin Johnson, with Jordan Spieth right behind him. These proposed changes were in the works before the fourth round of last year’s U.S. Open. They were in the works before Tiger Woods’s various rules issues in 2013. But those high-profile events added a sense of urgency to what now lies before us, for our consideration.

People will quibble, of course. These are quibbling times. (A quibble: dropping a ball after a penalty from a height of one inch? Not too golfy! Somewhere in the Outer Hebrides, a craggy Scot is turning in her grave, after succumbing to a fatal giggling attack.) But most people, come the start of the 2019 season, will find the 24 Rules of Golf (down from 34), to be less penal and more user-friendly.

The proposed changes will cover the world, a phrase used broadly here. They will cover golf on every continent on which the game is played, and they will have immediate application to golf as we play it at home and the high priests and priestesses play it on TV.

Now you will get three minutes to search for your ball, not five. That’s better, because it speeds up play and should encourage courses to cut their rough, so that there are fewer lost balls.

You know how there has been confusion about what you can and cannot repair on a green? Now you can fix most anything. That’s better, because putting is hard enough.

You know how you don’t know when to take a one club-length drop and when to take two? Under the proposed rules, relief will be a fixed distance. That’s better, because the most common drop (I suspect) will be reduced to not more than 20 inches, a length that can be indicated on the shaft of one of your 14 clubs. Sharpie sales should show an uptick.

MORE RULES  |  The 36 main proposed changes and what they mean for you  |  Tour Confidential: Our staff chimes in on the changes  |  9 essential things you need to know about the rules changes

Yes, there are changes that dumb down the game and reduce some of its appealing austerity. For example, if you take an unplayable lie from a bunker, you can drop your ball outside the sand, at a cost of two shots. Sounds like a game-show rule. (Can’t you just buy a do-over?)

This is a head-in-the-sand stance, but I don’t like the broad allowance of distance-measuring devices. One of the challenges of the game is figuring out the distance, and part of its appeal is its lack of gadgetry. Still, and right on down the list, every last proposed change is rooted in making the game more sensible. Not more traditional, but golf doesn’t need more tradition. It needs more people understanding the rules and playing by the rules, because without rules, and strict adherence to them, you don’t have competitive golf.

A question I hope can be addressed by 2029 is this: Do the changes do enough? I would say no. The revisions will feel radical to rules buffs. But to golfers-at-large, they won’t change much.

A radical change would be reducing the club count from 14 to, say, 10. That would speed up play, because a player would be faced with fewer decisions.

A radical change would be painting white out-of-bounds stakes red, thereby treating a ball that comes to rest OB as if it were in a water hazard.

A radical change would be rewriting the lost-ball rule along these lines: drop in the vicinity of where you and your playing partners determine the ball should have been found, with a one-shot penalty. That’s how most of us play it already.

A radical change would be a one-shot penalty for every instance of not being ready to play when it’s your turn. Yes, the terms would be difficult to define, but nobody said this would be easy.

A radical change would be allowing no club to be longer than, say, 44 inches.

A radical change would be requiring clubs longer than 40 inches to have heads made of wood, which would lead to shorter tee shots and ultimately shorter courses and faster rounds.

A radical change would be to require able-bodied golfers to walk, which would result in courses with greens much closer to the next tee and much faster play.

Radical changes—after the lawsuits are settled with Fox Sports money—would make a great game greater.

In the meantime, a great game got marginally better.