News & Opinion

PGA Tour players talk rules rebellion

First of two parts

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – It’s the beginning of the third month of the revised Rules of Golf, and PGA Tour players still are highly critical not only of the 2019 edition but the way in which it was drafted.

Three rules, in particular – leaving the flagstick in the hole while putting; dropping from knee height; and, perhaps the biggest irritant, a ban on a caddie’s position behind his player – have incensed PGA Tour players. Some are suggesting a radical step: making their own rules, separate from the governing bodies, the USGA and R&A.

In 1969, the Tournament Players Division, which was affiliated with the PGA of America, broke off and formed what today is known as the PGA Tour. Joe Dey, a former executive director of the USGA, served as the Tour’s first commissioner. Despite the decision to split from an organization founded for club professionals, Dye and his players were unwilling to create their own rules.

“I do sympathize, because I was part of that myself,” said Jack Nicklaus, acknowledging the modern players’ frustration and comparing the mood with 50 years ago. “But we all took the position that we are not bigger than the game of golf, and the game of golf is the USGA and the R&A. And so, we felt like if we did that [made our own rules], then we're making ourselves more important than the ruling bodies of the game of golf, and we didn't think it was the right thing to do.”

Nicklaus conceded that players in his era had disagreements with the rules, but they also found a way to deal with whatever rules indigestion occurred over time. Modern-era players are not as willing to take a rules antacid, instead moving directly to surgery.

And though the players with whom I spoke are unsure what the solution might be, some clearly are ready to move on from what many call an untenable situation.

“I don't know any other professional sport where the professional organization running the event doesn't have their own rules,” said Brooks Koepka, a three-time major champion who finished second here Sunday in the Honda Classic, one stroke behind winner Keith Mitchell. “We have an organization that runs one event a year, and they make the rules for the year. If Slugger [White, PGA Tour rules official] John Paramor [European Tour rules official] in Europe, if they got together and made their own rules, it would by fair and a much better experience for players and fans.”

Koepka expressed the most support for a set of PGA Tour rules.

The issue came sharply into focus here Friday at the Honda Classic. TV coverage showed Adam Schenk, with caddie Mark Carens standing behind him, as Schenk was taking a stance in a greenside bunker at the 17th hole. The infraction of Rule 10.2b(4), which addresses caddie alignment of a player, was an expanded definition that took effect Jan. 1.

After numerous concerns about the rule in the first few weeks of the season, a clarification was issued Feb. 6, after the Waste Management Phoenix Open. The rule expanded from the putting green to cover caddie action equally throughout the rest of the golf course.

Ironically, PGA Tour rules officials found out about Schenk’s infraction not by the PGA Tour TV watcher, who is responsible for monitoring each tournament for potential rules infractions, but by numerous caddies who saw the broadcast and called a Tour official to clarify the rules.

The two-shot penalty on Schenk moved him from near the top of the lead to middle of the pack and further fueled players’ ire.

“A lot of the things that the USGA is doing in terms of rules and setups of the golf courses that they do every single year, it just doesn't seem to be bettering the game. The lack of communication that they have with us – the players, the current players – it just doesn't seem like they're making a very good effort,” Justin Thomas, the reigning PGA champion and No. 3-ranked player in the world, said after Saturday’s third round. “And it's frustrating because they just don't have really relationships with us at all, but it's not by coincidence. A lot of them are nice guys, but they just don't seem to be trying.”

The exasperation of Koepka and Thomas has been well publicized, which has created discussion among Tour players and golf journalists about the rules. Yet some players view the relationship between the USGA and Tour players as being better than many perceive it to be.

“I don't think they're necessarily as simplified as they thought they would be,” said Rickie Fowler, who tied for second at Honda. “Not everything's going to be perfect. Nothing's fair. But I think there's some changes that can be made that can help simplify things.”

Fowler said the rules issue needs to be faced head-on.

“If someone wants to say they made a mistake or just say, This didn't work out the way we wanted it to, I don't think it’s right to say nothing's wrong or everything's great. Obviously, you have people making fun of the rules and people at home making fun of guys dropping from their knee. That's not good for our sport, in my opinion,’ Fowler said. “I feel like we're all out here to grow the game. You guys want to help grow the game as writers. Us, as players, we want to help grow the game, and I believe that the Tour, the USGA and R&A, they all want to grow the game as well. So, I think it's just getting everyone on the same page.”

In an emailed response to a request for comment from Morning Read, a USGA spokeswoman said, “The USGA and R&A continue to believe one set of rules is in the best interest of the game. However, the rules have long provided some discretion to committees that conduct competitions. It is one of golf’s strengths.

“Ultimately, we all want to do what is best for the game, and we are open to a dialogue at any point in time towards that effort.”

What gets lost in the debate is that the Rules of Golf is not written solely for professional golf but drafted for the game worldwide. Thus, the implementation might be difficult at times and require patience. When players are competing for millions of dollars, patience can be in short supply.

“These guys have been writing the rules for us for a long time, so we’ve got to abide by it,” Ernie Els, 49, a four-time major champion, said of the USGA and its rulemaking. “People more than us are playing the game. We get seen, what we do on television. So, when you have a rule where you’ve got to drop like this [makes motion to knee height], I've been on Tour for almost 30 years. All of a sudden, I go to down below the knee. It's an awkward move. It doesn't really make sense to me, but it is what it is, so we abide by it.”

The last time the PGA Tour seriously discussed the possibility of making its own rules was in 2013, during the height of the debate about the anchored stroke.

Jim Furyk, who served on the PGA Tour Policy Board at the time, said the board decided that a separate rulebook was not in the Tour’s best interest.

“It's a different set of circumstances now,” Furyk said. “So, some of the minuses in the past might not be anymore, but I would still say the minuses outweigh the positives. That would be my guess.”

Coming Tuesday: Part 2 will look at the rules that seemingly hold universal appeal for review among PGA Tour players, and whether the players will get more of a say in the rulemaking process.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli