Industry News

Lords of golf aim to simplify game with fewer rules

First of a two-part series

By John Gordon

Golf is a simple game, right? Just look at the first words in the rule book. Unless you, like seemingly 99 percent of the world’s 60 million golfers, don’t have a rule book. Let me assist.

“Play the ball as it lies, play the course as you find it, and if you cannot do either, do what is fair.”

But as Shakespeare famously wrote, there’s the rub. (Not to be confused with “rub of the green” as defined on page 29 of the 209-page rule book.)

“But to do what is fair,” the intro continues, “you need to know the rules of golf.”

If you play baseball, you know the rules of the game, although the infield-fly rule might be confusing. In basketball or tennis, out of bounds is clearly understood. Under most circumstances, just about any sport can be played with only a passing knowledge of the applicable guidelines.

And then there’s golf, a simple game made singularly confusing by a morass of regulations accumulated over 500 years. The first code of rules in 1744 consisted of 338 words on one page, not roughly 25,000 on 209. And let’s not discuss the 40,000-word Decisions book, although that is next on the chopping block in an effort to make it more of a handbook rather than its current cumbersome Q&A format.

That’s why you probably don’t have a rule book. It’s too confusing. And that is why you probably have less than a passing knowledge of the rules that apply to the game you love playing.

On Wednesday, the USGA and R&A, the governing bodies that oversee golf just about everywhere, revealed the results of five years of exhaustive and productive updating of the rules. It was, in the words of Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status, the “first massive review” of the rules since 1984.

From now until Aug. 31, golfers have the unprecedented opportunity to play under these proposed rules and to offer their feedback to the USGA and R&A via emails and voice mails.

Out of the box, there are two things of note: There is not, and will never be, two separate sets of rules for pros and the rest of us (a.k.a. “bifurcation”); and you’re not getting relief from that fairway divot. (More on this in Friday’s Morning Read.)

But let’s give credit where credit is due.

 “Our aim is to make the rules easier to understand and to apply for all golfers,” said David Rickman, executive director, governance at the R&A, in a press release announcing the changes.

 “We have looked at every rule to try to find ways to make them more intuitive and straightforward, and we believe we have identified many significant improvements. It is important that the rules continue to evolve and remain in tune with the way the modern game is played, but we have been careful not to change the game’s longstanding principles and character.”

As a result, there will be 24 rules of golf, 10 fewer than previously. Without a doubt, the proposed draft is more user-friendly, more understandable and more consistent.

Highlights include:

·       Elimination or reduction of “ball moved” penalties: There will be no penalty for accidentally moving a ball on the putting green or in searching for a ball; and you are not responsible for causing a ball to move unless it is “virtually certain” that you did so.  

·       Relaxed putting green rules: There will be no penalty if a ball played from the putting green hits an unattended flagstick in the hole; you may putt without having the flagstick attended or removed. You may repair spike marks and other damage made by shoes, animal damage and other damage on the putting green, and there is no penalty for merely touching the line of putt.  

·       Relaxed rules for “penalty areas” (currently called “water hazards”): Red- and yellow-marked penalty areas may cover areas of desert, jungle, lava rock, etc., in addition to areas of water; expanded use of red penalty areas where lateral relief is allowed; and there will be no penalty for moving loose impediments or touching the ground or water in a penalty area. 

·       Relaxed bunker rules: There will be no penalty for moving loose impediments in a bunker or for generally touching the sand with a hand or club. A limited set of restrictions (such as not grounding the club next to the ball) is kept to preserve the challenge of playing from the sand; however, an extra relief option is added for an unplayable ball in a bunker, allowing the ball to be played from outside the bunker with a two-stroke penalty. 

·       Relying on player integrity: Your “reasonable judgment” when estimating or measuring a spot, point, line, area or distance will be upheld, even if video evidence later shows it to be wrong; and elimination of announcement procedures when lifting a ball to identify it or to see if it is damaged. 

·       Pace-of-play support: Reduced time for searching for a lost ball (from five minutes to three); affirmative encouragement of “ready golf” in stroke play; recommending that players take no more than 40 seconds to play a stroke and other changes intended to improve pace of play. 

·       Simplified way of taking relief: A new procedure for taking relief by dropping a ball in and playing it from a specific relief area; relaxed procedures for dropping a ball, allowing the ball to be dropped from just above the ground or any growing thing or other object on the ground. 

You can see the proposed changes at or

Did the “governing bodies” go far enough? Now’s your chance to let them know before the new code goes into effect Jan. 1, 2019.

Coming Friday: A closer look at the proposed changes 

John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email:  Twitter: @gordongolf.