rules of golf

Is an alternative to the stroke and distance rule good for golf?

A new local rule, offering an alternative to stroke and distance, is the standout feature of golf’s modernised rules released by the R&A and USGA. But does it fundamentally alter the game as we know it? Steve Carroll reports…

As someone who can’t be trusted to regularly find a fairway, never mind reliability keep the ball within the confines of the course, I can tell you that stroke and distance can be an absolute card killer.

You’re serenely going along putting together a nice score and then you carve one into the thick rough.

You spend every second of your five minutes in a futile effort to find that veritable needle in a haystack, only to take a long walk back to the tee to butcher the provisional you should have played the moment your first shot went awry.

You’ve wasted your time, that of your playing partners and the ever-growing impatient groups behind that should have been waved through.

It is under this pace of play pretext that the R&A and USGA dropped a little bombshell as they announced their finalised 2019 Rules of Golf.

Some of the changes were expected.

rules of golf

Lots of golfers have been uncomfortable with the idea of dropping from any height – all but placing the ball in reality – and the compromise to drop from knee height will preserve some “randomness” in the act.

Using the longest club in the bag to take either one or two club lengths of relief greatly simplifies the complicated 20-inch or 80-inch standard measurement that was being proposed.

I’m sure many golfers will also rejoice at the removal of the one-stroke penalty for an accidental double hit.

Then comes the highlight of the latest Rules of Golf announcement. From next year, a local rule is available that will give committees “the option to drop the ball in the vicinity of where the ball is lost or out of bounds (including the nearest fairway area) under a two stroke penalty”.

As long as your competition committee agrees to it and advertises it, stroke and distance will no longer be forced upon many club golfers.

It will still remain in elite amateur and professional events.

So for out of bounds, or a lost ball, you determine where the ball was, find the nearest fairway edge no closer to the hole, and drop on a line through two points – again no closer to the hole.

The key thing is the relief area is extended on both sides by two club-lengths so you’ll be able to drop your ball in the fairway.

The idea behind the change is the belief that going back under stroke and distance is having a negative effect at club level by slowing down the game.

Add in the time taken to try and find a lost ball (which is already being reduced to three minutes in the 2019 rules) and there is always the potential for a traffic jam on the course.

rules of golf

Although we all should play a provisional, how many of us do that every time there is the slightest doubt we could lose a ball?

Let me give you a personal example of how I think this might work in practice before we get on to the rights and wrongs of the local rule.

In a recent Stableford, I stood on the 17th and slightly pulled a tee shot into some rough on the left hand side. In the damp conditions, I was unable to find the ball.

As it was a par 5, and a hole where I didn’t receive a shot, I opted not to go back to the tee and blobbed the hole.

Potentially, of course, I could have negotiated the hole in four shots to pick up a single point. But I still had the unpredictability of hitting another tee shot and there was a queue on the tee.

Now, I think my options might be a little different.

rules of golf

I can still decide to go back and hit three off the tee or I can utilise the local rule.

I’m playing four but, because I can drop “in the nearest fairway area”, I feel far more confident of getting a bogey from here then I did hitting a third off the tee with the best part of 500 yards still to negotiate.

This local rule is going to divide people. There is definitely an argument that keeping the ball in play, and within the course boundaries, is a fundamental part of the game.

It also seems contrary that you can simply drop a ball in the fairway after hitting it out of bounds, for example, even accounting for a two-stroke penalty.

The word “vicinity” is open to abuse. There will be some players, either through ignorance or with more malevolent ambition, who will attempt to take advantage.

It can also be said, though, that some golfers will always try to cheat.

One of the bigger issues may be that not all clubs choose to implement it.

It might have been easier, if the R&A and USGA had been so inclined, to have simply added this officially into the 2019 Rules of Golf.

rules of golf

Instead, the onus is on committees and those of us who play in a lot of away competitions are going to have to study a club’s local rules fairly carefully to avoid coming unstuck.

On the upside, it should remove the need for players to rip up their scorecard simply because they are having a bad day and don’t want to go back to the tee.

As well as helping pace of play, that might also have a beneficial consequence for CSS as well.

The good thing about a local rule is that it is just that. If clubs implement it and don’t like what they see from it, there is nothing to stop them removing it.

So perhaps it’s worth seeing how it works in practice next year – what effect it has in competitions and on pace of play – before coming to a definitive conclusion.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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