News & Opinion

These 2 revised rules could use another ruling

Golfers checking for spike marks
In the old days – that is, before the 2019 revisions to the Rules of Golf – players had to determine whether a blemish on a green was caused by a ball or a shoe spike. The ball mark could be fixed, but the spike mark fell under the heading of 'rub of the green.' Now? Tap it all down, which Gary Van Sickle contends is a blot on the game.

Reduction to 3 minutes for a lost ball leads to unintended consequences, and tapping down spike marks creates a bad look

Rules are rules, except when they change and they’re no longer rules.

The three-minute warning: It was only a matter of time before the U.S. Golf Association got bit in the rear by the worst rules change of last year. I liked most of the group’s forward-thinking changes, especially the one about leaving the pin in while putting, but it made no sense to reduce the amount of time to find a lost ball from five minutes to three minutes under Rule 18.2.

Obviously, some desk warden did the math and figured, Hey, I know how to knock two minutes off a round of golf for every lost ball! Except that’s not how it works in the real world.

We saw the reality when Harris English teed off in the U.S. Open’s final round at Winged Foot, bailed one into the rough on his opening drive and didn’t find the ball within three minutes, even with help from fellow players, caddies and volunteers. The USGA’s John Bodenhamer had assured players that there would be plenty of marshals stationed at all of the key landing areas so lost balls wouldn’t be a problem. Had spectators been allowed onsite, the ball almost surely would have been found. Ditto if the marshals on the opening hole had done their jobs. But English trudged back to the tee to reload and made a double bogey.

Bryson DeChambeau’s stellar play made it a moot point whether that lost ball cost English a chance at winning. English would’ve had to play the round of the century to catch DeChambeau. Imagine if that lost ball happened at, say, the 18th hole and English had held a one-shot lead?

The problem with cutting two minutes from a lost-ball search is that it affects competitions without fans or marshals. I expected that to mean mini-tour events or local amateur tournaments, not a U.S. Open. The problem is, too many players bash it 300-plus-yards in the air. On a tournament course with actual rough, even Superman would have trouble from 300 yards away knowing where a ball landed within 10 to 20 yards. Figure the landing zone as a 20-yard-by-20-yard box, and a player and his caddie (if he has one) have three minutes to scour 400 square yards … assuming they selected the correct 400 square yards to search.

Joe B loses his tee shot just off the fairway on the opening hole in a local amateur event. After three fruitless minutes of searching, he walks back to the tee and re-hits. The next time he hits a drive into the rough, he might hit a provisional to avoid another walk back. Unnerved by Joe B’s lost ball, his playing competitors start hitting provisionals, too. Pretty soon, there’s at least one provisional hit every third hole. This more than wipes out the supposed two-minute time savings.

Did the USGA conduct a study on how long it takes to find a 300-plus-yard drive in the rough, or do any research on how often lost balls were found in Minutes 4 and 5? Not to my knowledge. Recreational golfers ignore this rule and most others, anyway, but this a bad rule for tournament golf. English is Exhibit A. Does this rule speed up play in tournaments? Nope, just the opposite. And at worse, a shortened search could affect a tournament’s outcome. Fix it, please.

Tap, tap, tap-a-roonie: There’s another rule I’m not fond of, but I’m not asking for a fix. This genie is permanently out of the bottle.

Once you let amateurs and touring professionals alike start tapping down spike marks or bumps or imaginary bird droppings or whatever on their putting line, they’re never going back. This change under Rule 13.1c(2) might have been done with recreational golfers in mind. Many find the game to be too difficult to begin with, and things such as hitting out of a divot or putting over footprints or spike marks seem unfair to them. They don’t know or appreciate the game’s rub-of-the-green origins. Part of golf always has been, Hey, you got a terrible lie, so deal with it. In a world in which entitlements flow, that’s no longer appealing for many newer golfers.

I’m an old guy who grew up in the era of metal spikes, so I’m biased. All I can say to younger players who complain about marks left by non-metal spikes is, You sissies don’t know what real spike marks are. You gripe about a few indentations when I spent decades putting around, through and over craters, stalagmites and slalom courses.

Tour players already are putting on the best surfaces in the world. The greens at PGA Tour sites are as good as any billiard table, except they’re not flat. They’re perfectly smooth, at least at the start of a round. When I see touring pros tapping down marks, it makes me laugh. It’s like picking up one grain of sand on a beach and moving it. Seriously?

All right, I get it; you’re playing for big money, and more and more of your fellow pros actually are switching back to metal spikes because, yeah, they grip better than snow tires, and like DeChambeau and Matthew Wolff, you’re all swinging out of your shoes all the time. The PGA Tour is the only place left in America where metal spikes are allowed.

Tamping down marks is just a bad look. I fix ball marks, but I refuse to smooth over spike marks because, oh yeah, the indentations from non-metal spikes or spikeless shoes are nothing.

If you want faster play, leave the pin in and quit fixing spike marks. As Fuzzy Zoeller, the former U.S. Open and Masters champion, used to tell his pro-am partners, “Miss it faster.”

Amen.

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