I've been a student at three PGA/USGA Rules of Golf seminars and left each of them learning so much, but with my head spinning at the complexity of the rules, the language used and the 500 pages of related decisions.
The rules had me shaking my head at how easy it would be to make a costly mistake without ever intending to do so. I felt like I needed to have a law degree just to get through the 34 definitions.
Nearly every proposed change announced last week by the USGA and Royal & Ancient achieves the stated goals of making the rules more easily understood and applied for all golfers. It makes them more consistent, simple and fair, plus reinforces the game's longstanding principles and character.
So let's take a look at some of the yays and nays of the proposed changes.
No more penalty for a player accidentally moving their ball during a search. (It was 1 stroke.)
No more penalty when a player accidentally moves their ball or ball marker on the putting green. (This would have changed the Dustin Johnson ruling in last year's U.S. Open and also one that bit Brandt Snedeker at the 2008 U.S. Open.)
Reducing the time to find a golf ball from five minutes to three.
A caddie is no longer allowed to stand behind a player to help with alignment. (And this coming from a player who used that aid from time to time; I am jumping up and down with joy!)
Recommendation that players play promptly: no more than 40 seconds to make a stroke.
Play "ready golf" in stroke-play. Today's rules make it seem like playing out of turn is wrong or not allowed. If you're ready, and it's safe to play the shot, do it.
Currently you are assessed a 2-stroke penalty (or lose the hole in match play) if you are on the putting green, play a stroke and it hits the unattended flag stick. The new rule does not assess a penalty at all. So what is to stop a player who has a super slick, downhill 30-footer from using the flagstick to their advantage when missing the putt might mean the ball rolls off the green? Way too much wiggle room here for the long standing principles of the game to be violated.
Today, if you take an unplayable lie in a bunker, which is a hazard, you must take that relief within the confines of the bunker or you may go back to where that shot was played from last and take a 1-shot penalty. The new proposal would let the player take relief outside the bunker, back on a line from where the ball was at a cost of 2 strokes. If you hit that ball into the bunker, you should have to play the next shot from that bunker. Take responsibility for your bad shot (and maybe take a lesson on how to hit a bunker shot from a buried lie, too.)
The new proposal would provide the committee (those in charge of the competitions or individuals responsible for running golf courses) the ability to mark all penalty areas with red stakes so that lateral relief is always allowed. In the way the proposed rule is currently worded, that would include areas that are out of bounds. It also includes the option to play the ball where it lies instead of mandating a penalty drop. Can you imagine the chaos and danger if people were going into someone's yard to hit shots that would today clearly be out of bounds? Talking about needing a law degree! The governing bodies have said they will be issuing guidance to the committees about the realities of making this lateral relief choice, but I still see a mess in the future if the proposal stands.
So, what next? If you have feedback, send it on to the USGA or R&A, but do it before Aug. 31. Work based on the feedback will result in a new rules book in 2018, and the new rules will take effect Jan. 1, 2019.
Both organizations say they are committed to hearing this important feedback, so here's what my club is doing to put the proposed changes to a real test. On May 20, the Saratoga Golf and Polo Club will play its Spring Handicap tournament as if it is 2019. Findings from both the men's and women's competitions will be sent to the USGA. Highs, lows and everything in between. I would encourage other facilities to try it.
I've heard plenty of feedback from amateurs as well as golf professionals over the past few days about the proposed rules changes, but also about the PGA of America's decision to allow players in their major competitions to wear shorts during practice rounds. Some said it was two straight days of gut-punching announcements last week and feeling abandoned by their organizations -- that much of the passion and professionalism they have spent lifetimes trying to pass on has been undermined by an overreaction of calls to modernize the game.
My answer is this: The rules have evolved since they first came to be in 1744, and they should continue to do so. But what cannot be lost in this attempt by golf to modernize both its rules and appearance are the basic tenants of integrity, responsibility for one's actions, respect for our past, and being caretakers of the future.
Professionals wearing shorts at major championships, even if it is just in practice rounds, does not make the game appear more modern, but it most certainly is a slap to the gains made in a world where the "professional" wasn't even allowed in many clubhouses not so long ago.
Not abiding by an easily identified boundary or using a flagstick to purposely stop a ball from going off a green is that same sort of slap, but to the integrity and responsibility for one's actions instead.
When I was a little girl, having been introduced to the game by my paternal grandmother at age 7, I played in many local tournaments, mostly against older ladies who were pretty well versed on the rules. It quickly became apparent that if you didn't know the rules, you weren't going to be playing with or against those ladies for long. You were also expected to dress respectfully. They were great lessons -- life lessons -- and ones that I hope continue to live on as we see where this road to modernization leads us.