A few weeks ago, the USGA and R&A announced a new set of proposed rules scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2019. After reviewing these proposals carefully, we are pleased to say that we think golfers — both recreational and pro — will love nearly all of these changes.
Moving Balls Not a Problem
Of the proposed changes, there are several big wins, with the biggest being no longer penalizing a player for accidentally moving their ball in various circumstances. They propose a new Rule 7.4 which does not penalize a player who moves their ball while searching for it. Certainly, in our case, and especially in autumn golf, it’s easy for a ball to come to rest under leaves. Gingerly moving leaves so as not to move your ball was time-consuming. Beginning in 2019, you can march through the leaves poking at the ground with your club. You hit your ball? No worries. Just replace it!
Similarly, with a new Rul 13.1, if you are on the green and accidentally move your ball, it’s penalty-free. Just pick up the ball and put it back. Practice swing hits the ball? No problem. Drop your marker on your ball, or drop your ball on your marker? It’s fine. Just move it back to where you thought it was and move on. Once, I played in a team tournament when my playing partner accidentally nicked his ball while making a practice putt on the 15th green. Two stroke penalty, hole lost and all momentum evaporated as we went on to lose the match. Beginning in 2019, that would have been just an “I’m sorry” moment, replace the ball and putt away.
One more in this category, the dreaded situation where a golfer is standing over their putt and the ball starts to move. We’ve seen penalty strokes added to pros, and we’ve had them added to our recreational golf rounds when we believed the wind blew the ball (or the slope was too great, or an earthquake just happened, etc.). Now, under a new Rule 9.2, unless you or the rules committee is “virtually certain” that you caused the ball to move, it’s without penalty. Just put your ball back where it began. For this one, it seems that even if you were virtually certain you caused the ball to move that you could claim it was accidental and therefore replaceable without penalty.
Ricochets Not a Problem
I lived in Massachusettes for a while, and I played at a course where an old, short stone wall was incorporated into the course. Once my drive came to rest on the wrong side of the wall (still in bounds). I was about 150 yards away from the green, and I needed to carry the 30-inch wall about six feet in front of me. Not a problem, or so I thought. I took a full swing, the ball hit the stone wall and before I knew what happened the ball had struck me square in the chest. That cost me three strokes and bruise on my sternum. One stroke for hitting the ball, and two strokes for having the ball hit me. The proposed rule would eliminate the penalty strokes. You’d still take the stroke for hitting the ball, but it would hit you without penalty under Rule 11.1.
Taking Relief and Dropping the Ball
These were some of the most interesting ones to me. First, if you ever need to drop a ball, what currently is from shoulder height will become ankle high, or even just tossing the ball on the ground. All that is needed is that the ball needs to travel through the air between where you drop it and where it lands. An inch? Yes, as long as there is some distance between your fingertips and the top of the grass by more than the width of the ball. This will modify Rule 14.3, and this is a win. How many times have you dropped the ball from shoulder height and have it either land in an awful spot or roll away requiring a re-drop. In 2019, it becomes much more casual, and that’s a good thing.
Also, to be replaced is the idea of dropping the ball as close to the spot as necessary, or dropping the ball within a club length. Instead, these are being replaced with a 20-inch distance and an 80-inch distance, respectively. This is great since it does away with the ridiculousness of watching a caddie hand a driver to a player who is only intending to measure a club-length with the driver. Now, it’s just 80-inches. No doubt, as clubs get manufactured from here out, the shafts will have a mark at 20-inches and 80-inches for players to use as reference points. It is doubtful players will need to carry around a tape measure. This will affect all rules that involve drops.
Finally, currently balls that are embedded in “closely mown” areas (i.e., fairways and greens) can be pulled out and dropped without penalty. However, if you ball become embedded in the rough, you can either gouge it out, or you can pull it out with a penalty. In the new rules, an embedded ball anywhere except a bunker can be rescued without penalty. Rules 16.3.
The only proposed change that I didn’t love was reducing the time allowed to look for a lost ball. In the spirit of speed of play, I get it, but going from five minutes to three minutes seems severe. However, in the speed of play aspect, I did like the guidance to swing within 40 seconds. In fact, I would love to have a “shot clock” in golf, even if it is just one tournament in the late fall to try it out. The tour may need to allow a few breaches during a round (two or three), but beyond that a shot taken after 40 seconds of your arrival at the ball and it being your turn to play would bring an interesting element to the game. If you are looking at a 230-yard approach shot on a windy day, having a shot clock would add more to the pressure. Is that a bad thing? I thought these guys were good.
More and More Changes
A couple of proposals allow a player to touch the ground in a bunker or penalty area, or to touch the line of a putt, as long as it doesn’t create an advantage. You will be able to putt the ball and have it hit the flagstick without penalty. You will be able to move loose impediments in a sand bunker. If you damage a club, you can keep playing with it. These and several others are being considered.
The proposed rules remove the language “water hazard” and instead replace it with “penalty area” to allow for courses to mark areas of forests or rocks as a hazard. Also, “through the green” is being replaced with “general area”, which expands the concept from fairway only to basically any part of the course.
Next Steps and Implementation Date
The USGA is taking comments on these rule changes until August 31, 2017, with the implementation date being January 1, 2019. For our money, these changes are great, and the USGA should push to have them in place a year earlier than planned.
The USGA often comes across as a bunch of nerdy, rules-loving guys who have it out for everyone else. These rule changes put the focus “on the game” and not “on the rules”, which is move that everyone will appreciate. Great job USGA!