Golf’s Sweeping Rule Changes: A Force For Good?

The rules of golf have positively mutated since they first saw the light of day.

Back in 1744, golf’s original rulebook contained just 13 ‘laws’. In the near three centuries since, this chunk of paper has swelled, and now stands at a total of 34 rules – and plenty more within each.

Sure, as the game has evolved, the rules have had to change with them.

But while the current rulebook may be the Holy Bible for the game’s traditionalists, it is, quite frankly, an unnecessarily complex and dour head-scratcher for the average man on the street – and certainly not a book that anyone reads from cover to cover for enjoyment.

In short, with the sport struggling for relevance, something had to change, and the USGA and R&A did precisely that when they announced the biggest overhaul of the rules in their history at the start of the year, with a series of changes and simplifications that will see the total number slashed to 24.

The devil is in the detail

The core focus of the wide-ranging modifications – of which there are over a hundred – has centered on pace of play, factoring in cultural differences/national interpretations, and ultimately making the game simpler.

Among them are a reduction in search time for a lost ball (3 minutes instead of 5), taking penalty drops from waist high, moving loose impediments in a bunker (and hazard), the ability to repair spike marks, reduction/elimination of ball-moved-accidentally penalties, relaxed parameters for taking relief, and a greater reliance on player integrity to enforce any transgressions.

All of this is set to come into effect from January 1st, 2019 – pending the results of an exhaustive six-month review process that finished earlier this month.

Interestingly, more than 22,000 members of the public from 102 different countries offered their take on these rule changes, largely via online survey. We await with interest the general consensus of this feedback, and how it affects the implementation plans.

But, for what it’s worth, I have some thoughts…

A change is as good as a holiday

Think about it, other than cost, what are the barriers to entry for someone who wants to take up cycling? Basketball? Baseball?  Tennis? Soccer?

Pretty much nothing.

Integrating yourself into these sports isn’t too much of a challenge, and the rules are not complex.

Golf, on the other hand, has all sorts of impediments to integration (finding people to play with if you don’t know anyone, learning all the course etiquette, hefty costs etc), and the rules are a minefield for a golf beginner.

Bottom line, something had to change, so massive kudos to the USGA and R&A for defying the stuffy traditionalists, and embracing the bigger picture.

And, having reviewed all these modifications, it’s an overwhelming yes from me, especially in cases where players have been penalized in situations where they’ve gained no advantage. Accidentally moving the ball; holing a putt with a flagstick still in the hole, to name but a couple.

To further bang the drum, who on earth ever came up with the rule that you can repair a pitch mark but not a spike mark?

Why has it taken so long for the confusing use of red and yellow stakes for water hazards to be reviewed?

And how, in this fast-paced modern society we live, did anyone expect golf to thrive when it takes five hours to play a round, and with such anemic pace of play restrictions to boot?

Getting with the times

Fortunately, sanity has prevailed, and these dynamic rule changes are set to deal with all this and more.

They aren’t all winners.

The decision to allow players to drop from waist height looks as though it will be open to manipulation. It will also be interesting to see what the general public had to say about the two-stroke penalty option for dropping outside a bunker – it’s hard to imagine too many situations where that would be advantageous.

And I felt the severity of the punishment for hitting a ball out of bounds could have been reassessed too.

Yet getting bogged down with minor details would be a great injustice to this initiative. The thing is, it isn’t just about the practical changes themselves (although they are much needed!). It is about what this whole exercise represents, and the proactive approach the custodians of our game appear to be adopting.

We’re all passionate about the game of golf, and there are many unique idiosyncrasies which we treasure.

But the harsh truth is that this world is a changing, fast-moving one. Like it or not, free time is limited, attention spans are shortening, and competition for people’s leisure spend is intense. If golf wants to retain its share of the pie, then everything from top to toe warrants serious scrutiny and consideration – even the fundamental foundations upon which it has grown.

These rule changes leave me excited, and not just because I’ll now be able to move loose impediments when I hit a poor drive into a hazard.

I’m excited because the USGA and R&A are finally taking notice of the difficulties golf has faced since the financial crisis.

For the first time in a very long time, I’m convinced that, whatever rough waters lie ahead for our beloved sport, we now have a competent crew at the helm to guide us through it.

Hope you enjoyed this special guest post!

Tom Davies
Editor and Founder
Golf Guide For Beginners (GGFB)

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