News & Opinion

PGA Tour players raise stakes in rules tiff

Second of two parts
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – When the USGA launched its revised Rules of Golf on Jan. 1, it didn’t take long for professional golfers to voice concerns.

With the intent of simplifying the rules, the USGA was staring at a P.R. nightmare, which the association did everything to avoid by working with the PGA Tour, PGA of America, LPGA and other leaders in the game.

Among the changes, three new rules have taken on lives of their own: the option of leaving the flagstick in while putting on the green; mandatory knee-high drops; and a prohibition on caddies setting up players before their shots (“PGA Tour players talk rules rebellion,” March 4).

Everyone seemingly has an opinion, even those who are retired from professional golf.

“That's a stupid rule,” 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus said of the knee-high drop. “The rule, I think, will change, and it will be at least knee high, not higher than shoulder.”

Nicklaus appears to be in the majority. Many players agree that the rule needs to change, mainly because it doesn’t seem to make sense. Why not have a rule that allows the ball to be dropped from a range of heights?

“I think it's a bad look, and that's not something you want for our sport,” Rickie Fowler said of the knee-high drop. “Especially when we're trying to get the younger generation that wants to be excited about the game, in the game.”

The drop is clearly odd, but two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els believes that the USGA has a responsibility, and it’s not necessarily to make professional golfers happy.

Els doesn’t like the knee-high drop and has had problems adjusting, but he is adapting.

“We’ve got to adapt to what they have said,” Els said. “It doesn't mean that you have to agree with it, but it's a rule. It's like a stop sign. I don't like stopping at stop signs, but we’ve got to stop.”

While Els expressed support for the USGA’s rulemaking responsibility, golf course setup wound him up a few notches. In an unprovoked diversion from the rules discussion, Els blistered the USGA for its course setups. Not since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines has the USGA provided an adequate setup for the national championship, he said.

“Since then, they have all been absurd, every one of them,” Els said. “The one at Pebble Beach when Graeme [McDowell] won [in 2010], I’ve never seen Phil Mickelson lose it like that. He finished the fourth round – we both had a chance to win – those green Poa annua shoots were sticking up all over the greens. It was just horrendous. And I can go on and on.”

Is it possible that players’ frustration over the USGA setups have clouded their judgment about the rules debate with the governing body?

“Almost every single time they get ahold of a golf course, they absolutely destroy it,” Els said. “Chambers Bay [in 2015]? I mean, you can just go on and on. They have taken some of the most iconic golf courses and absolutely destroyed them.”

How can a golfer hold those views about USGA course setups and maintain confidence in the organization over its rulemaking?

Many Tour players think that they should be more involved in the rulemaking process.

Though all of the major professional golf organizations were involved in the recent revisions, none of the representatives came from inside the ropes, where the players make their living at the game.

The PGA Tour’s representative was Steve Rintoul, a 20-year rules official who played in 95 Tour events in three-plus seasons in the mid-1990s.

Though Rintoul possesses some experience as a player, Slugger White, the Tour’s vice president of rules and competition, wishes that Rintoul would have been involved sooner.

“He probably got in there maybe a little late, maybe two minutes left in the fourth quarter type of thing,” White said. “I'm not saying that things would have changed, but it might have been maybe a little different look on it, for lack of a better word.”

While White believes in Rintoul and the process, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Gary Woodland and Rickie Fowler have lobbied recently for players to be part of the process.

Recently, communications have been an issue, with both sides taking shots through social media.

Last week, the USGA Twitter feed responded to Thomas with a shot across the No. 4-ranked player’s bow.

Justin, we need to talk. You’ve cancelled every meeting we’ve planned with you, but we are reaching out again. We were at the first 5 events, and tournaments last year, and your tour has had a seat at the table for 7 years. We’d love nothing more than to give you a seat. Call us.

Thomas called, which preceded this response by the USGA:

Justin, thanks for connecting with us offline. We look forward to meeting with you and talking through these issues. It's clear we both want to do what's right by the game.

Will that be enough? Will Thomas be able to bring the players into the discussion and perhaps guide changes?

“The USGA and the R&A have always been very respectful of the players,” Nicklaus said. “They may not have done exactly what the players felt, because maybe they had other interests that they thought was better for the overall game of golf than necessarily tournament golf.”

In a statement provided to Morning Read, the USGA agreed with Nicklaus and vowed to continue to work with the players.

“We have a strong working relationship with the PGA Tour, which was on display throughout the seven-year Rules modernization process and most recently through the new clarifications. Over time, this collaborative spirit has included representation on working groups and committees, conducting rules training exercises for their rules officials, providing learning tools, and being present and available at a number of Tour events to offer support, ask for feedback, and answer questions.”

The players understand that the decisions on the rules are currently the purview of the USGA. At the same time, if they want to get involved, they will need to get the PGA Tour to work with the USGA to promote the players’ interests. Only then will the players own the rules.

“Nothing against [Tour executive] Tyler Dennis or Slugger, but they aren't players that are out playing and playing week‑to‑week on Tour and playing for a living,” Fowler said. “I do believe they are out there looking out for our best interests and as well trying to grow the game, but I think having players involved would only help.”

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