PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Golf’s Story of the Year for 2019 should be something exciting, something big.
The nominees include Phil Mickelson winning at 48; Francesco Molinari turning into golf’s newest bad-ass; Dustin Johnson snagging victory No. 20 en route to a future Hall of Fame berth; and Keith Mitchell and his No-Name Offense.
The envelope, please. And the winner is … the Rules of Golf.
Wrong drops. Caddie assistance. Confusion galore. Players putting with the flagstick in. Backstopping accusations. Chaos. Dogs and cats living together. At times, pro golf this year has looked like a Chinese fire drill.
Well, allow me to put out the two biggest blazes.
The new drop rule requires a player who’s taking a drop to do so from knee height. Rickie Fowler ran afoul of that, accidentally dropping from shoulder height as he’d done all his life. It was an understandable mistake. But was it really worthy of a penalty? No.
My easy fix is to proclaim that a drop must be taken from no lower than knee height. That means dropping from shoulder height, a disadvantage in most cases, still would be legal. No harm, no foul.
My preferred solution is to eliminate the drop completely. Let a golfer place the ball instead of dropping it. The player who has drawn a penalty has suffered enough. Plus, placing the ball eliminates the need to re-drop (as often tediously happens), speeding up play.
I consider the new rule on caddies aligning players to be sexist. It clearly was aimed at too many LPGA players who had caddies line them up for practically every shot, a practice seldom seen on the PGA Tour. It was a bad look for the women, yes, but the new rule got it wrong. I hate that players can draw a penalty for something that someone else did. Under this new rule, that means simply standing in the wrong place. (Adam Schenk was dinged two shots. Denny McCarthy was, too, but his penalty later was rescinded.) The rule already has been refined, but it’s still not perfect.
My correction is simple. Penalize caddies who actually help their players align. Don’t penalize caddies simply because of their location. This would fall under an area worthy of more exploration by the U.S. Golf Association: common sense.
The controversies around these new rules, plus the back-and-forth patter about leaving the flagstick in while putting, an option under another new rule, have overshadowed what has been an otherwise exciting start to 2019. It also has led to some unpleasant sniping. Former PGA champion Justin Thomas criticized the USGA, and someone operating the USGA’s Twitter account sniped back, claiming that Thomas canceled several meetings with USGA officials to talk. Then the USGA operative backtracked and, well, none of it was pretty.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has been the Voice of Reason in all of this, and Wednesday at the Players Championship, he reiterated his position as a uniter, not a divider.
During the past six years, Monahan said the PGA Tour helped encourage a review and modernization of golf’s rules. The Tour saw the draft of the proposed rules, shared opinions about them and had a hand in creating them.
What he didn’t say, therefore, is that any Tour player criticizing the new rules is effectively criticizing the PGA Tour, because it was just as complicit – involved might be a better word – in the changes.
“We were a participant in creating the rules,” Monahan said. “We had an equal share. When you roll out 50 changes, there are going to be some that work really well and some things that might create debate. Lost in this discussion are all of the things that are working really well, and that list is long. Some existing rules are causing debate. That’s exactly where we thought we would be.”
Monahan said he spent Wednesday morning with members of the R&A, USGA, LPGA, European Tour, PGA of America and Augusta National to continue a discussion on the rules.
“What's happened here the last few weeks has exposed a weakness in our working relationship, which happens when you’ve got a lot of different organizations,” he said. “So, we're going to tighten that up, and we're going to move forward in a way that is going to be good for the game and certainly get us to the right place with these new rules.”
In short, a little bit of adversity has helped bring these disparate groups slightly closer. Monahan shot down suggestions, some by players and some by the media, that the Tour might be better off governing itself.
“We have two fantastic professional governing bodies,” he said. “We have always played by their rules, and we will continue to play by their rules. We are not going to be playing by our own rules. We think that the game is best served with everybody playing by the same rules and the same standards. I think it's fair that these subjects are brought up. We're going to make certain that our players understand how we're working with our industry partners and what our thinking is.”
The same is true for the driving-distance controversy. The Tour is not interested in reining in the ball. The governing bodies keep looking at the topic and note gradual increases but have done nothing so far related to the golf ball.
“There’s a lot of discussion about slow play,” Monahan said. “When you have six or seven different organizations with different policies and perspectives and we’re not each fully aware of what those are, that may not be serving the game’s best interests. So how do we learn from each other?
“Driving distance is another. How do we fully understand each other’s perspectives and have a good debate about solutions? I want to be clear that this is on us, too. We need to be more transparent and more forthcoming. That’s the spirit of those relationships. I just think it got away from us a little bit.”
In the interest of full disclosure, Monahan has taken a proper knee-height drop while playing golf this year, and he has holed putts while leaving the flagstick in. “I putt in a perfectly average way with it in or out,” he said jokingly.
The diplomatic fences are mendable, and the new rules are repairable.
Now let’s get back to the part where the golf shots and the champions, not the rules, are on center stage.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle