WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?
11

Will the USGA Find an Alternative to the Stroke-and-Distance Penalty?

One of the most commonly ignored rules among recreational players is the stroke-and-distance penalty (Rule 27-1), which requires the player to replay a shot from the original position when a ball is lost or comes to rest out of bounds. Typically, a golfer in that situation will drop a ball at an approximate point where it crossed the boundary line or tree line, taking a stroke penalty. A strict adherence to the rules (assuming no provisional ball is in play) would require returning to the tee (or wherever the last shot was played).  Few golfers are inclined to do this, particularly on a busy day where this would hold up play.

Recently, the USGA and the R&A 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.  (See https://www.golfcontentnetwork.com/news/usga-modernize-the-rules-of-golf/)  As part of the 5-year re-examination of the rules, the USGA and R&A considered alternatives to the stroke-and-distance rule, recognizing that it poses issues for pace of play and sometimes prevents a player from completing a hole.  

Although the rules gurus have committed to continue to study the issue, the proposed rules revisions retain the stroke-and-distance penalty. So far, none of the alternatives considered have been found to be workable in the eyes of the USGA and the R&A.

During a teleconference on the proposed rules revisions, NEGM asked Thomas Pagel, senior director of Rules & Amateur Status for the USGA, why it would not be possible to apply a rule similar to that applied to lateral water hazards in the case of clearly-defined boundary lines, or even clearly defined tree lines, and permit the player to drop the ball near the point it crossed the boundary or tree line. Pagel agreed that in many cases it’s easy to define the margins of boundaries, but expressed concerns that a rule allowing lateral relief might pose safety concerns where a course is lined by houses.

Distance Penalty

Dropping the ball

The philosophy of the USGA and the R&A is that keeping the ball on the course is a strategic challenge of the game that would be undermined by a more flexible rule. In the case of lost balls, Pagel noted that the challenge is how to provide relief where you don’t know where the ball is – how do you estimate where to drop, and should it be a one or two stroke penalty?  He conceded that the proposed rules do allow more flexibility for recognizing player judgment in dropping balls in hazard situations, and that the topic is still open for discussion.

Although the proposed rules do not alter the stroke-and-distance rule itself, Pagel emphasized that the new rules that expand water hazard relief to other areas of the course (“penalty areas”) will minimize the number of times players will confront the stroke-and-distance penalty. Under those rules, areas such as desert, thick vegetation, and rock may be marked by red and yellow stakes. In addition, the rules permit an expanded use of red stakes (lateral hazard relief), such as along tree lines.  

Distance Penalty

Water hazard

If the USGA and R&A are serious about reducing the complexity of the rules, speeding play, and encouraging rules compliance among all classes of golfers, they would do well to continue to examine alternatives to the stroke-and-distance rule.  A clearly defined boundary line would seem to lend itself well to red stakes.  And, notwithstanding the USGA’s concerns about lost balls, estimating where a ball crossed into woods is not much different than estimating where it crossed a hazard line. The elimination of the stroke-and-distance penalty would conform the rules to the way many golfers are already playing.

Geoff Shackelford, contributor to Golf Channel’s Morning Drive and Golf Central and Co-host of The Ringer’s ShackHouse podcast, conducted a poll asking “What proposed change to the Rules of Golf do you still wish to see considered?” The overwhelming public response (45%) seems to be that the USGA should address the stroke-and-distance for shots that are hit out of bounds. What rules do you want to see changed?

WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?
11