The USGA and R&A had good enough intentions when the two governing bodies agreed to simplify the Rules of Golf. And many of the changes that will take effect Jan. 1 are the result of some simple, common sense.
However, as you might expect from the USGA, some of the language is now different (details). This is the organization that brought you “hole locations” instead of pin placements. Water hazards will become “penalty areas,” and through the green will be called “general area.” Where you drop will be the “relief area,” and if you keep that spot between you and the hole, it’s called “back-on-the-line relief.”
Beginning in January, if your ball accidentally moves on the green, there’s no penalty. You can choose to leave the flagstick in when you’re on the green and you will be able to tap down spike marks on the green. You will be able to move loose impediments in a bunker.
You will be allowed only three minutes to search for a lost ball. Penalty drops will be from knee height instead of shoulder height. You will be able to move loose impediments and ground your club in a “penalty area.” And if you accidentally make a double hit, there no longer will be a penalty (summary of major changes).
T.C. Chen would have appreciated that in the 1985 U.S. Open. Leading by four shots on Sunday, he made a double hit while attempting a chip shot on the fifth hole at Oakland Hills, which so unnerved him that he went on to give up his lead and ultimately finished second to Andy North – by one stroke. His lasting legacy is that a double hit to this day is called by those who remember it a “T.C. Chen.”
The USGA and R&A also have placed limits on the scale and size of detailed green-reading materials that surfaced on the world's major tours in the past year or so. The governing bodies claim that having the charts be pocket-sized will keep green-reading as one of the skills necessary to play the game at a high level. However, it's information that is available to the highest levels of the game and largely unavailable to the everyday golfer. But that's a separate discussion for another time.
But the rules-making organizations deserve a two-shot penalty for an illegal drop for failing to right one of the great wrongs in the rules for which golfers have needlessly suffered for years: stroke-and-distance for a ball out of bounds.
It’s the most penal and unfair rule in the game, outside of disqualification. You don’t lose distance when you hit a ball into a hazard, sorry, penalty area. So why should you suffer a bigger penalty for crossing the out-of-bounds line?
The USGA and R&A tried to address this rule by making a silly Local Rule that allows recreational players to drop a ball in the fairway nearest the point where the previous shot went out of bounds – with a penalty of two shots.
The rationale is that this Local Rule will improve pace of play by eliminating the provisional shot. But they just got it wrong. First, the provisional takes only about 30 seconds, so slow play is not the issue.
What should have been done is for out of bounds to be played as if it were marked a red penalty area. You could drop within two club lengths in a “relief area” with a penalty of one stroke. One of the rules addresses “equity,” and the penalty for hitting into a “penalty area” should be the same as for hitting out of bounds.
However, this Local Rule will not be in play for any USGA championship nor, it is assumed, will it be in effect on any professional tour. It’s simply for recreational play.
But there is a way around this. One of the new rules allows for the committee to mark areas of the course – such as jungle, underbrush or desert – with a red line for “penalty areas.” Using this rule, the committee – or your local club or daily-fee course – could remove all white out-of-bounds stakes and instead mark those areas with a red line. That would solve the stroke-and-distance problem.
It is the most practical solution available for a problem of inequity. Besides, recreational players have been doing this for years. Hardly anyone hits a provisional ball if there’s a chance that the shot is out of bounds. Nor do very many players go back to the tee to hit another ball after the original is found to be out of play. They just drop a ball where they think it crossed the OB line and keep playing.
Which is as it should be. The USGA and R&A made a great deal of headway into simplifying the rules. Except in this case. Their intentions were right, but the execution was just plain wrong.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf