Industry News

Revised rules ought to give ground on fairway divots

Second of a two-part series

By John Gordon

During Wednesday’s joint USGA/R&A conference call announcing the proposed “modernized” rules to go into effect Jan. 1, 2019, I asked why a fairway divot can’t be treated as ground under repair. After all, a golfer is being penalized for someone else’s negligence, essentially altering the nature of the course.

In my experience, that is one of the biggest beefs golfers have with the rules.

David Rickman, executive director of governance and chief of staff at the R&A, responded that there were two aspects to the decision not to allow relief from divots. 

“Philosophically, one of the general tenets of the game, one of the great principles, is to play the ball as it lies, and I think even the great player Bobby Jones made the good point that you can get some bad outcomes from good shots, and you can get some good outcomes from bad shots.

“If you look at the practical side, we are concerned that while some divots and divot holes are very obvious, as time goes by, the difference between an old divot hole and a general imperfection of the ground can become increasingly difficult.”

With all due respect, that reasoning seems a tad facile. Surely a satisfactory description of a divot could have been added to the extensive list of definitions in the rule book. Combined with the renewed emphasis on player conduct, integrity and “reasonable judgment,” a solution must be achievable. In fact, proposed Rule 1.2a is intended to give “more prominence to the expectation that all players will act with integrity, show consideration to others and take good care of the course,” the USGA and R&A wrote in their overview.

And, because Rickman exhumed Bobby Jones, another much-debated concept that will not be considered going forward is separate sets of rules for professional and recreational golf, also known as bifurcation. This despite the fact that Jones adamantly stated “there is golf and there is tournament golf, and the two bear little resemblance.” 

Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status, pointed out that the draft code of rules was not solely a USGA/R&A collaboration, but that the PGA Tour and European Tour had been involved from the start, five years ago. It can be assumed that the proposed changes are intended to make the rules not only more understandable but also truly universal.

Wednesday’s announcement ( also dashed the hopes of golfers who want to paint every white stake red, thus dispensing with the dreaded “stroke-and-distance” penalty. The rationale, as explained by Pagel, was logical. Stroke-and-distance is precise whereas estimating where a ball crossed the margin of a hazard (to be renamed “penalty area”) is not. However, the proposed new rules allow for the marking as hazards areas of dense trees, thick grass, desert and the like, at the discretion of the golf course operator or tournament committee.

Also prominent in the draft rules was the theme of pace of play. Aside from the obvious – the maximum time spent looking for a ball will be reduced to three minutes from five – other suggestions to encourage what Rickman calls “prompt play” include being allowed to take a maximum score of double par in certain formats, a revised dropping procedure (drop the ball from as little as 1 inch from the ground, rather than from shoulder height), more efficient relief options, leaving the flagstick in while putting, “ready golf” and continuous putting.

One proposal that will definitely not speed up play is that players now may tamp down spike marks, heel marks and other imperfections on the putting green. Aside from being an implicit indictment of the new generation of aggressive cleats on golf shoes, this creates a nightmarish scenario for pace of play.

The full slate of proposed changes can be found at and Both organizations encourage golfers to review them, play by them and then provide feedback and suggestions before Aug. 31. (However, the 2016 edition of The Rules of Golf remains in effect until the new code is adopted.)

Who knows? There still might be a chance to get relief from a divot and to break out the red paint.

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