They’re here! After an extensive review period incorporating player feedback, sweeping changes to the rules of golf became effective on January 1. And while most New England golfers won’t begin to confront the new rules until the spring, professionals have been grappling with the changes as the PGA Tour kicked off in Hawaii. Although players generally don’t see the new rules having a major impact at the elite level, many are anticipating more consultation with rules officials during competition. So much for the goal of speeding play.
The USGA was so concerned about a smooth implementation of the new rules that it dispensed Thomas Pagel, Senior Managing Director of Governance, to Kapalua to handle inquiries from players during the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Most questions involved the new dropping procedure, which requires the ball to be dropped from knee-height, rather than shoulder-height. The change was designed to minimize re-dropping when the ball rolled out of the relief area.
“We wanted to eliminate all those complications,” said Pagel, noting that the ball bounces less when dropped from knee-height. He stressed that if a player inadvertently drops from shoulder-height, he can re-drop from the proper height without penalty before playing the shot.
While the new rules allow players to putt with the flagstick in the hole, don’t expect to see an abundance of Tour pros using this tactic. Bubba Watson dislikes the rule, noting that “it’s not like we don’t have a caddie to do that for us.” Justin Thomas added: “I can’t really take myself seriously if I leave the pin in. I just feel like it would be very, very weird.”
But Bryson DeChambeau (dubbed the “mad scientist” for his club and swing improvisations) is embracing the new rule. After extensive study, he concluded that leaving the flagstick in the hole is more likely to be a benefit rather than a detriment from any distance (a theory confirmed by short-game guru Dave Pelz). “Absolutely, I’m leaving it in,” said DeChambeau. (He proceeded to lead the field in putting during the first round at Kapalua.) Pagel cautioned that the decision to leave the flagstick in must be made before the stroke is made; if the caddie attends the flagstick, it must be removed.
For years, touring professionals complained about the inability to repair spike marks on greens. Now that the new rules permit repairing any damage to the putting green, players are cautiously optimistic. “I think [the rule] is fair,” said Webb Simpson. “If you were playing behind a guy who scrapes his feet, you were at a disadvantage.”
But some players think that the new rule could lead to problems. “I think some people will get carried away with that,” commented Rory McIlroy. DeChambeau called the new rule “potentially the smartest and the dumbest change. There’s a balance to it and if you go too far off the deep end you could literally create a trench down your line.” (Improving your line of putt is still a penalty.) Pagel added that many players have concerns about the impact on pace of play. “We’re just trying to reinforce the fact that it’s just about cleaning up those imperfections — spike marks or shoe prints in your line.” He said the goal is to “put common sense into the rules of golf.”
Players took different approaches to preparing for the new rules. Some, like DeChambeau and Thomas, have studied the changes in detail. Paul Casey noted: “I’ve read them, but I think there’s a difference between reading them and fully understanding them.” At the other end of the spectrum is McIlroy, who commented: “I know a few of them. I don’t know many of them. But that’s why we have rules officials.”
The PGA Tour displayed a poster illustrating the new rules in the locker room at Kapalua. Of course, they also posted a notice about unorthodox bunkers at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2010. It didn’t help Dustin Johnson.