Making golf simpler — or not?

By Duncan Simpson
New Zealand PGA Secretary

It’s great that The Royal & Ancient and the United States Golf Association are working hard on some revolutionary changes to the rules of golf, aimed at speeding up play, and making them easier to understand.
My favourite is the one removing the penalty for hitting the flagstick when on the putting green. A lot of time is wasted with players having to walk the length of the green to attend the flagstick just in case a 20 metre (or longer) putt should happen to hit it.
The odds of this occurring are lengthy, to say the least, and even if the flagstick is hit by the ball, it rarely results in an advantage as many putts will be deflected by striking it. This one certainly gets my tick.
Secondly, I’m all in favour of reducing the search time for a lost ball to three minutes. In my experience, you either find it early on or not at all. Also, the five minutes tends to be somewhat elastic, and on a course where multiple searches are likely to be required (e.g. my home course Wainui in Auckland) this can easily add half an hour to a round.
Other immediate positives are the endorsement of “ready golf”, and the ability to drop a ball from as close as one inch above the ground. However, I’m not so keen on the new drop zones (20 inches for relief where no penalty is involved, and 80 inches if a penalty stroke is incurred). Most of the world has gone metric these days, and I can’t see any advantage over the current one club length/ two club length rules.
There’s a lot more detail in other areas, and I’d encourage you to look at, where there are some excellent videos and explanations. The R & A and the USGA are keen to see the new rules tried by clubs in unofficial competitions between now and the proposed implementation date of January 2019, although they state that any rounds played cannot be used for handicapping purposes, which might be an issue here.
You can also provide feedback in various ways, and take the survey on the website. Another way of doing this is through your local PGA professional, who is an expert on the rules, and can ensure that any issues relating to your club get back to the rules’ bodies.
For example, would you be prepared to wear a two stroke penalty for dropping out of a bunker? Are there any situations where dropping out of the new “penalty areas” won’t work on your course? What about the 40 second rule for playing shots? And so on.
The rules governing play are of course only one part of the equation. We also have the rules on amateur status, and the regulations around equipment. The latter is a battleground going back to at least 1903, when there was an unsuccessful attempt to ban the new Haskell ball, which was going 20 to 50 yards further than the gutta percha ball it soon replaced.
In 1904 the American Walter Travis turned up at the British Amateur with a centre shafted putter and proceeded to win the tournament, even though he was one of the shorter hitters in the field. Soon after that, the putter was banned, and the ban was not lifted until the 1950s.
The ball has been the focus for many battles. Testing is carried out on a standard apparatus used by the R & A and USGA. In 1976, balls were limited to 280 yards (roll and carry) on this. By 2004, following the introduction of the solid core, urethane covered Pro VI ball, this was increased to 320 yards. Since then, no further limits have been announced, although looking at the distances achieved by Dustin Johnson and others, you would have to think the 320 yard limit has gone by the board. The current rules are (perhaps deliberately) vague.
Meanwhile, the battle has moved to other areas, the latest being green reading maps. You may have seen an increasing number of tour pros using these, which are prepared by specialist sources and retail for around $NZ200 per book. The rules bodies have stated they want “green reading skills” to be preserved, so expect to see some sort of a ban introduced shortly.
They could also argue that these books do nothing to help the speed of play, so are inconsistent with the 2019 changes under discussion. On the other hand, the new rules allow for repairing spike marks and other green damage — so anticipate a lot more time taken up in that area in the future.
There’s a kind of Yin and Yang in all this, as manufacturers, rules officials and players alike try to find ways of gaining (or preventing) that tiny edge which could make a difference at the highest level.
Back to the 2019 changes: these are much more than the tinkering that has gone on in the past, and we all need to sit up and pay attention. Anything that potentially makes the game faster and more enjoyable has to be good, so well done to the R & A and USGA for getting the revolution under way.

Sarah HeadComment