New Rules of Golf For the Modern Age?

If you have long thought of the USGA and R&A as stodgy, change-resistant organizations, think again. Today the rules gurus announced sweeping proposed changes to the rules of golf with the goals of eliminating complexity, reducing penalties, and speeding play. The changes are scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2019, following fine-tuning after a six-month feedback and evaluation period.  

The proposed changes, which would represent one of the most historic rules revisions in history, are the product of a rules modernization initiative commenced in 2012. The proposed 24 new rules (there are 34 existing rules) are written in a user-friendly style, and are intended to promote consistency, simplicity, and fairness. When adopted, the new rules will combine technology that allows the use of images, videos, and graphics.    

David Rickman, an executive director at the R&A, noted that “our aim is to make the Rules easier to understand and to apply for all golfers. We have looked at every rule to try to find ways to make them more intuitive and straightforward. 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.” Thomas Pagel, senior director of Rules & Amateur Status for the USGA, added: “We look forward to an ongoing conversation with golfers during the feedback period in the months ahead.”


David Rickman Executive Director R&A

USGA’s Proposed Rules

An overview of the proposed rules may be found at the USGA’s website. Here are some highlights of the rules:

Elimination/reduction of ball movement penalties.  There would be no penalty for accidentally moving a ball on the putting green or in searching for a ball, and a player would not be responsible for causing a ball to move unless it is “virtually certain” that the player did so.

Relaxed putting green rules.  There would be no penalty if a ball putted from the green strikes an unattended flagstick in the hole (which would save a lot of time in removing and tending flagsticks). In addition, players would be permitted to repair spike marks and other damage made by shoes and other damage on the putting green, and would be permitted to touch the line of putt. If a ball was replaced after being marked and lifted, and then moved due to wind or some other reason, it would be replaced where it was marked.


USGA Proposed Changes – Relaxed Putting Green Rules

Relaxed rules for “penalty areas.”  The rules expand the water hazard rules to various types of “penalty areas,” such as areas of desert, jungle, and rock, which may be marked by red and yellow stakes. In addition, the rules permit an expanded use of red stakes (lateral hazard relief), and eliminate the penalty for moving loose impediments or touching the ground in penalty areas.


USGA Proposed Changes – Relaxed Rules in Penalty Areas

Relaxed bunker rules.  There would be no penalty for moving loose impediments in a bunker or for simply touching the sand with a hand or club. However, there would still be a penalty for grounding the golf club next to the ball in a bunker. If a ball in a bunker is deemed unplayable, the player would have an additional option of dropping the ball outside the bunker with a 2-stroke penalty.

Player integrity and judgment.   A player’s “reasonable judgment” when estimating or measuring a spot, point, line, area, or distance would be upheld, even if video evidence later revealed it to be incorrect.

Relaxed dropping procedures.  Players would no longer be required to drop the ball from shoulder length.  A ball could be dropped from any height, provided it was not touching any growing plant or natural object. In addition, the player would not be required to re-drop the ball if it rolls, provide it remains in a defined relief area (measured in inches rather than club lengths)


Lost balls. Players would be allowed only three minutes, rather than the current five, to search for a ball.

Embedded balls. Unless a local rule provides otherwise, relief for an embedded golf ball would be permitted anywhere through the green (except sand), and not limited to closely mown areas.

Distance-measuring devices.  Distance-measuring devices would be permitted unless prohibited by a local rule.  Currently such devices are permissible only by local rule.

Promoting faster play.  Players would be encouraged to play a shot in 40 seconds, and to play out of turn in stroke play (“ready golf”). In addition, the rules would recognize a new “maximum score” form of stroke play where the score for a hole is capped at a maximum (double bogey or triple bogey).

So far, the USGA and R&A have resisted entreaties to permit free relief from divots in fairways. In addition, while they are still studying possible changes to the often-violated stroke-and-distance rule applicable to balls out of bounds or lost, the proposed rules do not modify that rule.  In a teleconference on the rules, Pagel explained that allowing lateral relief for balls out of bounds might have some merit but is problematic.  Similarly, he said it would be difficult to apply such a rule to ball lost in woods, given the difficulty of establishing the appropriate drop point.     


New England Golf Monthly will review some of the notable proposed rules changes in more detail in the coming weeks.

Photo Credits: USGA.com, golfdigest.com