The start of 2019 brought the most extensive changes to the Rules of Golf in perhaps their entire history. Many of the longstanding ways the Rules were understood and executed were turned on their heads.
Controversy also reigned on the professional tours at the beginning of the year, but largely died down in the second half. The USGA hired professional golfer Jason Gore to be a liaison between the USGA and the players on tour to smooth things over and allow the players to have a real-time conduit back to the higher-ups. For the average player, the new Rules of Golf have had mixed success. Here are some of the more commonly used new Rules that we believe are working…and some that are not:
Reference point drops
One of the lesser-known Rules changes, but one that is critical, involves establishing a reference point from which to drop the ball. When taking a drop, the ball must come to rest within a specified distance of the reference point. Under the old Rules, when a ball was dropped, it remained in play if it rolled no more than two club lengths from where the ball first struck the ground. An example of how this would work is with a stroke and-distance penalty taken from the fairway. Prior to 2019, the player had to drop a ball as near as possible to the spot from which the last shot was played. This year, the player may drop within one club length of that spot, but the ball must remain within that one club length.
Another example is dropping straight back on the line from the hole, as with the old regular water hazards or unplayable lies. Previously, the ball had to be dropped right on that line, but now the ball merely has to be dropped within one club length of that line. For a red penalty area (formerly called a lateral water hazard), one option allows the ball to be dropped within two club lengths of the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard. This is the same as prior to 2019, but now the ball must remain within those two club lengths. Verdict on reference points: Working.
Penalty areas vs. water hazards
Under the old Rules, a water hazard could only be established if there was actually water (at least some of the time) in the designated area. This didn’t stop some courses from marking their dry wooded areas as lateral water hazards, but that practice was actually not allowed by USGA and R&A Rules. Now, any area can be labeled as a penalty area. Verdict on penalty areas: Working.
Allowing club to be grounded in penalty area
In years past, it was against the Rules to ground your club in a hazard, be it a bunker or a water hazard. While it’s still illegal to ground your club in a bunker, you may now do so in a penalty area. Frankly, under the previous Rules it made little sense to call this a penalty. Verdict on allowing the club to be grounded in penalty areas: Working.
Allow removal of loose impediments in bunkers and penalty areas
Again, a rule that previously made little sense. Verdict: Working.
Allowing players to fix any damage on the putting green
We all remember how we could only fix old ball marks and old hole plugs. Spike marks? Forget it. But the kinder and gentler USGA and R&A now allow us to fix any damage. In 2019, this makes sense, as almost no one wears traditional metal spikes, so damage to putting greens today is limited. Back in 1976, the European Tour employed a local rule allowing players to fix spike marks. Play got so bogged down that the rule was quickly rescinded. Today, that isn’t much of a problem, and allowing damage to be repaired is more than fair. Verdict on allowing putting green damage to be fixed: Working.
Leaving the flagstick in the hole while putting
To be picky, it has always been legal to leave the flagstick in the hole on putts. What used to be illegal was for the ball to strike such flagstick. Now it’s not, and players everywhere are leaving the flagstick in to putt. One good aspect is that longer putts no longer require someone to tend the flag. But now we have some situations that negatively override the benefits, in our estimation. You have the awkward verbal dance of, “Do you want the flagstick in or out?” Then, within the same group, you might have two players who want the flagstick out and two who want it in. This leads to a waste of time putting the flagstick in or taking it out. Finally, many players, when taking the ball out of the hole with the flagstick still in it, damage the edge of the cup, sometimes severely. When you’re playing late in the day, this can be a real problem. Verdict on no penalty for a putted ball striking the flagstick: Not working.
Caddies cannot be on the line of play when a player is taking his stance
This rule mainly applies only to tour players, but at the club level, there are a number of competitions where caddies are employed. Haotong Li was famously penalized two strokes early in 2019 in Dubai for having his caddie on the extension of his line of play while he was allegedly in the process of taking his stance. The problem is that the replay did not conclusively show this, but Li was penalized anyway. Some other penalties were handed out and some were rescinded, too. While tour players are now very aware of this rule and no problems have arisen recently, there is still enough gray area for this to be a problem going forward. Verdict on caddie position during taking stance: Not working.
Dropping the ball from knee height
Rickie Fowler was penalized two strokes at Phoenix early in the year for absent-mindedly dropping from shoulder height and not correcting his mistake. Others, like Bryson DeChambeau, made fun of the new rule with dramatic theatrics while taking their drop. At the local level, some less-than-flexible golfers have trouble even taking the drop properly. The new rule was put in place so that the ball was less likely to roll more than two club lengths, thus requiring re-drops. But a much better solution, and one employing common sense, simply would have been to require any drops to be taken from knee height or higher. For most people, dropping a ball from hip-height or slightly lower is far more natural, so it makes sense to allow this instead. Verdict on dropping from knee-height: Not working.
The USGA and R&A are to be commended for trying something bold, and they also had a lengthy input period which must also receive kudos. Hopefully, they’ll keep an open mind and continue to adjust the Rules of Golf when warranted.