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Six months after U.S. Open debacle, governing bodies eliminate penalty for accidental ball movement on green

December 8, 2016

Dustin Johnson should be pleased with this decision.

Odds are you’ll be glad to hear it, too.

In a joint action Thursday, the USGA and the R&A announced the introduction of a local rule that eliminates the penalty when a golfer accidentally moves a ball on the green.

The local rule will be available for any tournament committee to implement starting Jan. 1, 2017. The USGA and R&A will adopt the local rule starting on that date as well, applying it to all of their championships, qualifying competitions and international matches.

The move provides a stopgap solution to an issue that golf’s governing bodies have been pondering as part of their broader efforts to update the official rules of the game.

“For the past several years, as part of the R&A and USGA’s Rules Modernization initiative, we have considered the penalty for a ball that is accidentally moved on the putting green,” David Rickman, executive director of governance at the R&A, said in a prepared statement. “Both rules committees agreed that it needed to be changed and decided that in this particular case it was important to act now, through a Local Rule, rather than wait for the next overall set of revisions to the Rules of Golf.”

In an interview with GOLF.com, Thomas Pagel, USGA senior director, Rules of Golf and Amateur Status, said, “We’re excited about this change and to be able to bring it now to golfers and golf courses around the world.”

Under the current Rules of Golf, decisions involving the accidental movement of a ball on the green fall under Rules 18-2, 18-3 and 20-1. But many golfers think of those rules collectively as the Dustin Johnson Rule, owing to an incident during the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, where Johnson’s ball rolled ever so slightly as he prepared to putt on the 5th green.

Johnson, who went on to win the tournament, was ultimately assessed a one-stroke penalty for the incident, though he and other players in the hunt completed their rounds under a cloud of uncertainty as tournament officials worked to arrive at a decision.

The USGA later apologized for its handling of the ruling. But the underlying problem remained the penalty itself, which, Pagel said, the governing bodies had been mulling for some time.

“Oakmont certainly did bring the matter to a lot of people’s attention, and it did prompt us toward further conversation,” Pagel said.

But, he added, the 2016 U.S. Open was hardly the first time that conversation had come up. Over the years, Pagel said, the governing bodies had been faced with “a number of uncomfortable situations” involving accidental movement of balls on greens, including a 2012 incident at a tournament in Dubai where Ian Poulter incurred a one-stroke penalty after he inadvertently dropped his ball on his ball marker, causing the marker to move.

(MORE: Dustin Johnson Used to Play for Himself, But Now He Plays With a Purpose)

Incidents of that nature are just part of the picture the USGA and R&A are examining in their ongoing efforts to keep the rules of golf apace with the modern age.

“We know that we will be eliminating that penalty,” Pagel said. “But that is just one of the many topics we are looking at.”

Under its normal rules cycle, the USGA issues a revised edition of the Decisions on the Rules of Golf every four years. But that schedule may shift, depending on any decisions that might spring from the Rules Modernization Initiative.

Meantime, in issuing their local ruling, the governing bodies have recommended the following modified wording for Rules 18-2, 18-3 and 20-1:

When a player’s ball lies on the putting green, there is no penalty if the ball or ball-marker is accidentally moved by the player, his partner, his opponent, or any of their caddies or equipment.

The moved ball or ball-marker must be replaced as provided in Rules 18-2, 18-3 and 20-1.

This Local Rule applies only when the player’s ball or ball-marker lies on the putting greens and any movement is accidental. 

Note: If it is determined that a player’s ball on the putting green was moved as a result of wind, water or some other natural cause such as the effects of gravity, the ball must be played as it lies from its new location. A ball-marker moved in such circumstances is replaced.