YAY! And a few other observations on the proposed new rules of golf

The new rules of golf have the power to shorten your round, lessen your confusion and enhance your golfing life. That’s the conclusion here after reading through the USGA and R&A’s 159-page Full Text of Proposed Rules 1-24 and Definitions and the 116-page Player’s Edition of the New Rules of Golf for 2019.

Image of golfing couple

Courtesy of USGA

Highlights of the proposed new rules of golf, according to the jointly issued press release, include the following. Our comments are in color.

  • 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 a player is not responsible for causing a ball to move unless it is “virtually certain” that he or she did so.  This is the Dustin Johnson rule. Unfortunately the ruling bodies did not change one of the 5 Stupidest Golf Rules and we will still be penalized if we move our ball marker for another player’s putt and forget to put it back.Image of USGA Rules Changes Infographic
  • Relaxed putting green rules: There will be no penalty if a ball played from the putting green hits an unattended flagstick in the hole; players may putt without having the flagstick attended or removed. Players 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. This change ought to make recreational rounds move faster — what a pain dealing with the flagstick — but the suspicion here is that the pros will continue to have the flag removed and we will mimic them.
  • 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. The pros don’t seem to struggle with these areas anyway; this is only going to help recreational players’ scores and pace of play.
  • 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 right 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. The pros will never take a two-stroke penalty to play outside a bunker, but we might! Nice to have the option!
  • Relying on player integrity: A player’s “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. Again, play moves faster for recreational rounds, and the pros won’t have those scoring tent surprise rulings called in by Charlie Couch Potato.
  • 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 help with pace of play. LOVE THIS, but who in your league, club or foursome has the nerve to enforce it?
  • 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. Simplified=our kind of rules. Anything that shortens the round and eliminates confusion around the rules, count us in.


We’re in for a season or two of on-course “Yes it is, no it isn’t” discussions that could prolong our rounds. This will be especially true for women, who for some reason tend to try to play strictly by the rules in their recreational rounds while guys are practicing their mulligans and gimmes. All golf leagues and clubs should schedule “relaxed rules” socials during the winter of 2018-19.

When we play by these rules, our rounds will be shorter. We’ll end our searches after three minutes, we’ll putt with the flagstick in if we feel like it, we’ll make better drops on the first attempt. Maybe we’ll even mellow out.

We might stop yelling at the TV when we’re watching golf. Just last year, both the men’s and women’s U.S. Open championships were marred by picayune rules violations detectable only by slow-motion replay that required tedious deliberation. Dustin Johnson won, Anna Nordqvist lost, TV viewers suffered. Not only does the draft eliminate the stupid “Your ball moved even though you did nothing to cause it to move” penalty, it negates the impact of video evidence so Charlene Couch Potato won’t have the incentive to pick up the phone and call in a game-changer.

Jordan Spieth and Lydia Ko are going to have to get less chatty. Both of these young superstars spend too much time debating each shot with their caddies. And for Ko, there’s an added challenge. “Yeah, I guess the player lining up thing, that means I’ve got two years to get myself to line up straight…,” she said. “They gave me enough time to I guess practice my alignment, so I can’t really be complaining.” Yes, Lydia, professional players ought to be able to line themselves up.

The rules may be getting simpler and fewer, but don’t count on a slimmer volume of The Rules of Golf. We’ll carry a book of 24 rules, not 34, but with drawings and plain-language explanations that may require as many as the current 215 pages. And this will be only the “player’s guide.” The full rules will require another, longer book.

The new rules of golf are long overdue. The USGA describes this as the biggest rules overhaul since 1984, but one might argue there’s been nothing of this scale since the rules of golf began in 1744. Here’s hoping the new rules of golf aren’t the last rules of golf, but the beginning of a progressive movement to make a great game relevant for new generations.

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