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Rules changes would do more harm than good

By Gary Van Sickle

You probably heard about the rules changes proposed recently by the USGA and R&A ( I was pleasantly surprised by most (but not all) of the changes and credit the governing bodies for trying to simplify the game.

However, I can’t stand back and listen to absurd claims that these are a “pace-of-play” initiative. These changes aren’t going to speed up play. In fact, I believe they will hurt the pace of competition rounds.

The proposed rule about leaving the flagstick in when you putt is a nice adjustment, but what’s that really going to save in recreational golf? Five seconds once in a while before somebody in the foursome can pull the pin? That is of no real consequence in an 18-hole round.

The USGA and R&A proposed a doubleheader of bad ideas. They want to reduce the amount of time allowed for a lost-ball search by 40 percent, from five minutes to three minutes. That’s sure to speed up play, right? 

Wrong. Those two minutes of searching will be more than undone by players who don’t find their lost balls and have to walk back to replay the shot. Oh, just play a provisional stroke to avoid that dreaded walk back then. Yes, and get used to it because more players will hit more provisional shots off the tee than ever before, knowing they’ve got two fewer minutes to find an errant drive. On a course with substantial rough and golfers routinely flying it 290-plus yards, even Superman would be hard-pressed to pinpoint where his ball came down. So, there will be more provisionals played in self-defense. 

Abolishing rough would speed up play. Shortening the lost-ball search won’t. 

The second bad idea, and a much worse one, is allowing golfers to repair all marks on the putting surface, not just ball marks. Tour players already look like professional gardeners on the green, and that’s just to repair supposed ball marks. I say supposed because this is the No. 1 area where pros fudge the rules. Your opponent fixes what is really a spike mark, but you let him because you want the same professional courtesy from him, probably in about a minute. 

I’ve watched the ninth green at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, during the PGA Tour’s Bridgestone Invitational a lot over the years because the pressroom window used to overlook that green. I saw a laughable number of pros fix “ball marks” within 2 feet of the cup. Yet I’d been watching all morning and never saw a shot land anywhere near the cup. But there was something there that they had to fix.

Letting these guys fix every imperfection in the green, real or imagined, is like having an open bar at a wedding reception. The guests will over-indulge. You can expect to see a record number of green repairs on short putts in the wake of this rule, especially when a pro’s first putt runs 2 or 3 feet past the hole into virgin territory that he hasn’t already tamped down with his divot tool.

You’re not going to speed up pro golf without a shot clock, which would eliminate all gray areas and reduce pace of play to a simple yes-or-no question: Did you play the stroke in the allotted time? 

Recreational golf isn’t going to speed up because of these changes, either. The biggest cause of slow play is bad play (that leads to more lost balls), and most recreational golfers are bad at golf. That is golf’s dirty little secret. Oh, I have played with plenty of slow good players and plenty of bad fast players. It’s just harder to play fast when you hit 105 shots instead of 78.

Some of the proposed rules changes will make golf more user-friendly, but they will not improve the pace of play one bit. 

Oh, wait! I forgot that the USGA is going to encourage “ready golf” and recommend that golfers play each shot within 40 seconds.

No one would dare violate that, right?

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle