State of the Game: New Rules Controversy?
WE’RE HALF A YEAR IN, AND THE WORLD IS STILL TURNING. SO LET’S MOVE ON.
No good deed goes unpunished. At least that’s how things might be viewed from Far Hills, NJ. On the heels of the most sweeping rules revision perhaps ever — and in the most player-friendly direction — the greatest golfer of all time holds that the new drop provision looks “silly.”
Hey, I’m not bagging on Jack Nicklaus. He’s done far more for the game than thousands of us ever could. And at least he didn’t take a Fowlerian don’t-tread-on-me stand on the matter, getting into a crouch, with the ball falling under his backside, suggesting the United States Golf Association had, well, you know.
We’re more than a half year now into golf’s new era and I like it, and it sounds like I’m not alone.
“I think the rules changes have been well accepted,” says Jeff Ninnemann, director of rules and competitions for the Southern California Golf Association. “The USGA, in my opinion, did a really good job with this rollout.”
The initial seed was planted in and by the USGA more than seven years ago, and by 2018 the proposal was largely leafed out, with that year spent, as Ninnemann points out, on information dissemination, education and feedback: “I think most folks knew what was coming and as a result the changes have been well accepted. I haven’t heard of much pushback at the amateur or everyday player level.”
Doubtless there was some confusion in application and the PGA TOUR, being in full swing at the start of the launch period, was the beta test. Fair or not, Justin Thomas was the early season poster child for grousing over the flagstick, drop and caddie alignment changes. But he was not alone, and a few penalties were assessed. Per the rule of unintended consequences, this is to be expected. Did anyone really think there wouldn’t be some confusion?
“There were a few legitimate concerns,” Ninnemann reflects, “such as where the caddie could be positioned. The USGA to its credit clarified and fixed that. Now the drop, that’s where we’ve seen the biggest fuss. Some just like to grouse about change because it is change.”
As an inveterate watcher of tournaments, and an unabashed fan of the LPGA Tour, I was keenly interested in the caddie rule. The LPGA’s player president and former touring pro, Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, captures what I’m sure most of us thought about the practice of caddie-as-theodolite: “From the perspective of our players, if there was a rule seemingly directed toward our tour, that was the one.”
Yet where was it penalized?
Goetze-Ackerman and the announcer and former player Kay Cockerill both look to the (former) prevalence of the alignment practice on the LPGA Tour as an impetus for players to drill down into the new requirements to avoid any missteps. “Everyone is taking it pretty well,” Cockerill says of the larger package and the caddie-specific rule. “I haven’t seen any negativity or big issues. I thought, and I think most of us thought, there could be a big impact [from the alignment ban], and that’s just not been the case. Everyone seems to have been extra cautious because [alignment] was so routine.”
Both gave kudos to LPGA rules staff and the USGA for the interaction and education leading into the January 1, 2019, implementation.
Not every player embraced every change, and that’s the case when opinions, long-standing habits and practices, and money are in the mix. The key is accepting and moving on.
On the men’s side, Kevin Streelman, a two-time winner and PGA TOUR policy board player director, like Nicklaus and others, think the drop level feels unnatural and looks awkward, and would like to see shoulder-to-knee allowed. He also said it took a bit of time for him to get comfortable with the relief area allowance. But as to the process and outcomes, he thinks it went and is going well.
“We were very privy to the rules updates and the decisions that were made,” Streelman said. “Our team at the TOUR was highly involved with the USGA. It’s still a process, as we’ve seen, but it’s definitely positive and the changes have been received pretty positively. Let’s remember, this is for the general golfing public, too.”
On a personal level, major props for the flagstick rule. Talk about something anachronistic and illogical, that I could chip from 10 feet away — or laser one from 215 yards — and bang it off the stick, but heaven forbid doing so on an 80-foot putt. I could not care less how it looks and don’t feel the practice is some kind of unholy blasphemy; go back to stuffing feathers in a leather pouch if that’s your beef. (This certainly can’t hurt pace of play, but one hell of a lot more needs to be done to address this No. 1 problem afflicting our game.)
Lightening up on loose impediments and grounding the club is a no-brainer, too. Same with the drop. A visual unbecoming a golfer? Please. We’ve even heard “unfair,” as in not all golfers’ knees are at the same level but somehow their shoulders are? It’s different, that’s all. It might actually lead to fewer balls going to the bottom of the Bermuda Grass Triangle. Make it a range; move on.
I’m mixed on the local rule allowing a 2-stroke option for OB or a lost ball. That’s codifying what a lot of us have long done — sorry, handicap committees — at twice the cost. I guess I’m cool with OB remaining stroke-and-distance or this new allowance, since in sport there is a designated area of play and you really can’t play if you’re not in, um, play. Norwood had his uprights, baseball has its foul pole and we have white stakes. Now a lost ball versus one that goes into a penalty area? Things can get dicey here when trying to figure out with “virtual certain” that the ball was indeed in a watery grave as opposed to lost in the adjoining weeds, or whatever scenario of lostness is in play. I’d call for a mulligan on this and just treat both as a 1-shot penalty-area occurrence.
There’s more, of course, but these are the items that most irritated my band of miscreants and for which we most often took personal liberties in (improper) execution. Golf is a complex game with a still-Byzantine code of law. In 2019, however, those tenets we most often brush up against are a lot clearer, and a whole lot better.
“As happened many times with these rules discussions over the years — look at the rangefinder matter — there is so much hype, there is so much concern over what might happen, how it might impact the nature of the game,” Ninnemann shares. “Then when the changes are adopted it’s just really no big deal. We go out and play golf. That’s maybe a good lesson about life in general.”
For a fun and engaging way to learn the Rules of Golf, check out the SCGA’s Rules Crew videos at scga.org/tv