Was the Masters a turning point for the new Rules of Golf?
“I think they’re terrible,” moaned Justin Thomas as we were in the epicentre of a new Rules of Golf rancour.
The new drop was “weird”, he couldn’t take himself seriously putting with the flagstick in and the sanction handed out over the position of Denny McCarthy’s caddie was “mind blowing”.
That came as the usually mild mannered Rickie Fowler – who picked up a penalty after forgetting that drops were now made from knee rather than shoulder height – less than gloriously revealed what he thought in front of officials to indicate his displeasure at the new arrangements.
Thomas admitted the rules “didn’t make a whole lot of sense” to him. We were three months in and they were still making headlines.
Yet, like the Western Front, it’s suddenly all gone quiet. We’ve heard barely a squeak of protest for a good couple of weeks and the USGA and R&A even popped out a clarification in a local rule, allowing players to replace a broken or significantly damaged club, without any real comment.
No one’s significantly getting their collars felt by a rules official any more and those in charge of tournaments may finally be thinking they can breathe a sigh of relief.
So what’s happened?
Human beings have a problem with change. We generally like patterns and we like to stay within the herd. When there is upheaval, there is usually outcry.
And this was a big shift – the most comprehensive alterations to the laws that govern the game for a generation. Not since 1984 had we witnessed something this seismic.
That was bound to bring some grumbles, especially for a generation of players used to the same old.
It’s also human nature to leave everything to the last minute, and more than just a few of our top professionals appeared guilty of this one.
The first embryonic version of the new rules emerged some 22 months before their eventual introduction and everyone had nine months to familiarise themselves with what was about to transpire when the review period came to an end and the revised edition was announced.
But a peek into a couple of meeting rooms at the year opening European Tour event in Abu Dhabi in January would have seen players in rows listening to rules chiefs giving them an outline of what they’d have to cope with from now on.
With millions of euros and dollars on the line every week, it was incredulous that they wouldn’t be up to speed. Some, it seems, weren’t.
Put all that together and you’ve got a perfect storm. As soon as a perceived scandal broke – the incident with Haotong Li’s caddie being the really big spark – then every single little infraction, whether it was actually a new rule or not, found itself getting the microscopic treatment from players and media.
New Rules of Golf and the Masters
Eventually, though, we all move on so let’s look at the situation we have now, and why we got through the Masters without a ‘snafu’.
Firstly, as Padraig Harrington pointed out in his commentary stint on BBC on Sunday, most of the players have started to get used to them and, crucially, have stopped talking about them.
They’re no longer that headline.
Secondly, some of the changes have actually proved quite popular. Pros and amateurs alike have got behind the new flagstick regulations and no one who has ever played the game seriously begrudges tapping down a spike mark or two on their line.
And finally, a collection of people who were never averse to calling in a rules official at the slightest risk of something questionable have now, as Paul Azinger put it, become “gun shy”.
Francesco Molinari had an incredibly simple drop from a sprinkler system at the 10th in the final round at Augusta National but still reeled in a referee to make sure everything was above board.
That will become even more commonplace – whether it’s making sure a drop is carried out correctly or explaining why Zach Johnson could tee it up again after hitting his ball with a practice swing.
The players have passed the onus onto the people meant to know the rules and that has had the effect that the implementation of them is becoming easier.
Maybe we’re only an errant caddie away from another hullaballoo but at the moment everything seems to be finally settling down.
Which is exactly as the R&A and USGA will like it.