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The R&A and the USGA have unveiled the new Rules of Golf, to be implemented on 1 January 2019.
Most are unexceptional and will help to overcome issues that have often frustrated regular golfers. However, some deserve a little more questioning.
There are a number of unexceptional changes.
When taking relief, players will now drop from knee height. This makes no effective difference to the randomness of a drop.
The golfer’s relief area will be measured by using the longest club in his/her bag (other than a putter) to measure one or two club-lengths. The ‘other than a putter’ phrase is to eliminate broomsticks. In practice, nearly every golfer grabs their driver for this measure anyway, making this rule change ho-hum.
The penalty stroke for accidentally striking the ball more than once in the course of a stroke has been removed. Golfers will simply count the one stroke they made to strike the ball. Good. A double hit is always completely accidental, so why penalize a player for an accident?
Golf club committees will be able to have a local rule to allow golfers the option to drop the ball in the vicinity of where the ball is lost or out of bounds (including the nearest fairway area) under a two-stroke penalty. Again, a good change to help speed up play by replacing a ‘stroke and distance’ penalty with a straight two-shot penalty. This almost always (barring a miracle shot) has the same effect on a player’s score.
There will be no penalty for moving loose impediments in a bunker or for generally touching the sand with a hand or club. A limited set of restrictions (such as not grounding the club right next to the ball) is kept to preserve the challenge of playing from the sand. Completely sensible.
Reduced time for searching for a lost ball (from five minutes to three); affirmative encouragement of ‘ready golf’ in stroke play; recommending that players take no more than 40 seconds to play a stroke and other changes intended to help with pace of play. Hooray!
So now, let’s look at rule changes that may have some problematic issues.
There will be no penalty for accidentally moving a ball on the putting green or in searching for a ball and a player is not responsible for causing a ball to move unless it is “virtually certain” that he or she did so. Okay – so who determines “virtually certain”? Is it just me or can others see that this is a recipe for some very heated arguments among players?
There will be no penalty if a ball played from the putting green hits an unattended flagstick in the hole; players may putt without having the flagstick attended or removed. Again, this may lead to arguments. What if a player wants the flag in (or out) but other players tell them it makes no difference under the rules? Yet again, this could lead to some confrontations. There needs to be a rider to this rule declaring that a player may elect whether the flag is in or out – once this is decided, others in the group must honour this choice.
A player’s “reasonable judgment” when estimating or measuring a spot, point, line, area or distance will be upheld even if video evidence later shows it to be wrong. Also to be implemented is the elimination of announcement procedures when lifting a ball to identify it or to see if it is damaged. The mention of “video evidence” suggests that this rule is aimed at the professional game, but it opens a can of worms for normal club competitions. When a foursome is playing – with no other observers (the normal situation in club golf) – who determines “reasonable judgement”? Again, the scope for confrontation is significant.
On balance, the rule changes are excellent and well overdue, but there are some instances where a Pandora’s Box may have been opened.