Final version of modernized Rules of Golf includes some tweaking following public comment period; Pagel, Mate, Lis played notable roles in overall process
by Gary Baines
The public spoke and golf’s governing bodies listened and acted — at least in a couple of cases.
A year after the USGA and R&A proposed changes that would modernize, simplify and streamline the Rules of Golf — and after a subsequent six-month comment period — a final set of Rules were announced on Monday that will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.
Three current or former CGA staffers serve on the USGA Rules of Golf Committee which played a key role in the Rules modernization process — CGA executive director Ed Mate and former CGA staff members Thomas Pagel and Pete Lis. Pagel is the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status, and Lis is the manager of rules and competition for the LPGA.
It turns out that the six-month period of public feedback — which resulted in about 30,000 comments — did have an effect, leading to a few changes to what was proposed on March 1, 2017.
“I think it was handled masterfully,” Mate said of the whole process. “The USGA was in a damned if we do and damned if we don’t situation. But they gave a legitimate chance for people to comment, and they listened and responded (with some alterations). It wasn’t just wink, wink.”
— Instead of allowing ball drops from any height — as was proposed a year ago — what will be implemented is dropping from knee height.
“A number of comments we received from all levels of the game wanted to see a certain amount of randomness maintained so that when you drop a ball, you’re not sure what kind of lie you’re going to get,” Pagel said. “But how do you ensure that randomness? Do you take it back to shoulder height? It was really about finding a balance of maintaining that randomness while also allowing the player to identify a relief area, drop there as quick as possible and play on.”
— And instead of taking relief in a given situation based on 20- or 80-inch measurements — which was proposed — the rule will be one club length for free relief and two for a drop with a penalty.
“I think of all the changes, that one is the real concrete example of we listened,” Pagel said. “This feedback period, we were sincere in asking for people’s views. Because the fixed measures, philosophically, make total sense, but from a practical standpoint with people saying ‘I’m scratching my head a little bit. I’m not sure how I’m going to measure this,’ we had to step back and say, ‘OK let’s change.’ … It’s a lot easier if I just use my club length. And so we just went back to the drawing board.”
In addition, there are other tweaks since the proposed rules announcement from last year:
— There will be no penalty for accidentally double hitting a ball on a given stroke — a la T.C. Chen at the 1985 U.S. Open. Instead, the player will simply count the stroke made to hit the ball, and the ball will be played as it lies.
— Also, there’s a new local rule that will be available — but not for professional or elite-level amateur play — in which a golfer can drop a ball in the vicinity of where it went out of bounds or was lost, incurring a two-stroke penalty instead of the current stroke-and-distance. That local rule is designed to speed up recreational play.
“This addresses the issue you hear at the club level about the practical nature of going back and playing under stroke and distance that just doesn’t work. It has a negative impact on pace of play, and so how can we introduce something to resolve that? That’s what this local rule is about,” Pagel said. “You simply estimate where it’s out of bounds or where your ball is likely to be lost, you can go all the way out to the fairway and drop anywhere behind. … But the primary objective here is to keep the player moving forward, and we think that’s the real benefit of this.”
There’s also a new unplayable ball relief option in which a player may take relief outside a bunker by dropping a ball back on the line from the hole through where the ball was at rest in the sand — with a penalty of two strokes.
The biggest topic broached in the public comment period reportedly was golfers asking for relief when their ball is in a divot. But no changes were made in that area.
“One of the primary objectives for the overall initiative is to make the rules easier to understand and apply, but to also make sure we maintained the traditions and principles behind the game,” Pagel said. “And the principles are to play the ball as it lies and the course as you find it. So to write a rule that allows a player to sort of deviate from that was not something we were wanting to do.”
Among the previously announced proposed rule changes that will go into effect on Jan. 1 — part of what the USGA calls the biggest Rules overhaul since at least 1984:
— Searches for a lost ball will be limited to three minutes rather than the current five.
— A caddie will no longer be allowed to line up a player.
— There will be no penalty if a ball you hit strikes you, your caddie, or your equipment.
— There will be no penalty for a ball — struck on the putting green — hitting the unattended flag in the hole.
— Spike marks and almost all other damage on a green can be repaired. But note: existing pace-of-play rules will remain in place.
— A club can be grounded and loose impediments removed in a penalty area.
— Loose impediments can be moved in a bunker;.
— There will be no penalty for accidentally moving your ball while searching for it or for accidentally moving your ball or ball marker when it’s on the putting green.
All told, starting next year there will be 24 rules instead of 34 thanks to this rules modernization process, which began in 2012.
“It was a fascinating process in which I had a chance to provide some input and that I had an opportunity to preview,” said Mate, who noted that he tried to always keep in mind that he served on the USGA Rules of Golf Committee as a representive of state and regional golf associations. “The modernization is still golf. None of the changes that were made fundamentally change the game. Some thoughtful, intuitive things have been added.
“It’s been awesome being part of this. When Thomas Pagel called me to serve (starting in the fall of 2015), I would have been thrilled to death if that call came in any year, as someone who’s studied the Rules as long as I have. But to be in the room when those things were discussed, and when the most significant rewrite of the Rules (in a long time) was being done, is incredible. We’re not talking about changing decisions; this was a fundamental rewrite. Everything was being challenged. I much prefer coversations of ‘why’, which is what this was. I’ll always cherish being a part of it.”