Player Is No Longer Deemed To Move Ball

The 2016 revisions to the Rules of Golf completed an evolution of the rules relating to balls that move after coming to rest. While the new rule is less punitive than the original provision, it could create more uncertainty and increase burdens on rules officials.

55Rule 18-1, which was not modified by the recent amendments, provides that a player is penalized one stroke if he causes his ball at rest to move (once it is in play). The ball is required to be replaced.

Historically, an additional rule (Rule 18-2b) applied where a ball at rest moved after the player addressed the ball. In that case, the player was deemed to have caused the ball to move, resulting in a penalty, even if it was not clearly discernable that any action of the player caused the movement.

For example, if a player addressed the ball on a sloped putting green under windy conditions, and the ball moved, the player was deemed to have caused the movement even if he did not touch the ball with his putter. This stringent rule was often criticized for producing unfair penalties, but had the virtue of certainty given that it is often difficult for players, fellow competitors, or rules officials to ascertain what caused a ball to move in a variety of situations.

In 2012, in response to criticism that Rule 18-2b was overly Draconian, the rule was amended to add an exception: if it was known or virtually certain that the player did not cause the ball to move, the player was not penalized. This exception was intended to address the problem of balls moving on fast greens under very windy conditions, and seemed to many observers to be an effective response to the concerns about the unfairness of Rule 18-2b.

However, the USGA and the R&A decided in 2016 to go a step further and repeal Rule 18-2b. No longer will a player be deemed to have moved a ball at rest after address. A player will be penalized under Rule 18-1 only if the facts indicate that he caused the ball to move.

Thomas Pagel, Director of Rules of Golf and Amateur Status for the USGA, explained that he rationale of the 2012 exception has been extended to the rule in its entirety, and rules officials will look at factors such as the conditions where the ball was at rest, the player’s proximity to the ball, and the player’s actions around the ball.

New Decision 18-2/0.5 provides additional clarification of the standard to be applied by players or officials in determining whether a player’s action caused the ball to move. Factors to be considered include actions taken near the ball, such as mov-ing loose impediments or taking a practice swing; the time elapsed between such actions and the ball movement; the lie of the ball; the conditions of the ground near the ball; and wind, rain, and other weather conditions.

Patriots fans who followed the Deflategate odyssey might be interested to know that the standard applied under Rule 18-1 is whether the weight of the evidence indicates that it is “more likely than not” that the player caused the ball to move. So, just as the NFL didn’t have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Tom Brady knew that the balls were deflated, neither will your golf opponent have to meet that standard if he observes your ball move after your practice swing in the club championship.

Jesse Menachem, Executive Director of the MGA, commented that “players should welcome” the repeal of Rule 18-2b, and that the burden will fall on rules officials to look at all of the factors and make a determination.