rules of golf

What’s the point of the 2019 Rules of golf changes?

Fundamental changes to golf’s rules will come into force in just over a years time. Steve Carroll reviews what they will do

Golf is a simple game. Hit it, find it, and hit it again.

But if the premise of the sport is straightforward then the feeling, at least in the corridors of the R&A and USGA, is that some of the rules were not.

In 2012, the two governing bodies embarked on a huge review, the aim of which was to end up with a set of rules designed to equip the game for the modern era.

David Rickman, the R&A’s executive director – governance, has been at the heart of that process.

“There were two guiding themes. We were determined to be far reaching and radical in our thinking,” he told delegates at the GCMA’s national conference last month.

“At the same time, we believe it’s very important that we maintain golf’s essential principles and character.”

He said there were two current concerns surrounding the rules – that they are “too complicated – their purpose isn’t clear – and they have limited relevance to quite a lot of golfers.”

He added: “We want the rules to be more easily understood and applied by all golfers.”

2019 rules of golf

Last March, the R&A and USGA announced the first results of that modernisation review – a major set of proposed changes designed to make the game “more consistent, simple and fair”.

A six-month consultation followed and the feedback from that is currently helping to refine the proposals.

We will see the results in the spring before the new rules come into effect on January 1, 2019. Those rules will be accompanied by a stripped down Player’s Edition and a Guide Book, which will replace the current Decisions book.

“We are trying to write these rules for all golfers,” Rickman added. “We are trying to write these rules so there is enough flexibility so that they can cover, encourage and be inclusive to anybody who wants to play this great game, wherever they want to play it.”

You will have seen the major changes being proposed. But what’s behind the suggested alterations? We go through them with Rickman, who outlined his thoughts to GCMA delegates.

Dropping the ball

2019 rules of golf

Proposal: “You will be able to drop a ball from any distance above the ground, provided it doesn’t touch anything and falls through the air when dropped.”

Rickman says: “We were very keen to try and streamline and simplify the means by which we get the ball back into play.

“Over the years that process had become very complex. You had to drop the ball in a very precise way. Then if it bounces somewhere you had to know one of nine possible situations in which that drop didn’t count or had to be carried out again.

“So the motivation behind the changes to the dropping procedure is to remove those procedural elements.

“We talked long and hard about possibly placing the ball. But, particularly for free relief and free relief in the rough, we were uncomfortable with the notion that, in those circumstances, if you allowed placing a player would effectively always get the best possible lie they could get. That just didn’t feel right.”

Time for ball search

Proposal: “Three minutes will be the maximum allotted time to search for a ball, rather than the current five minutes”.

Rickman says: “The game takes a long time. We think this is a way in which we can speed it up.”

Embedded balls

2019 golf rules

Proposal: “You may take relief for an embedded ball anywhere in the ‘general area’ (except in sand). ‘General area’ is the new term for ‘through the green’.”

Rickman says: “This is the one that, certainly in the UK, it’s very common for relief not to be extended by a local rule. The current rule talks about it really being a closely mown area. We are looking to reverse that. When you look at the rules worldwide, it’s more common for the embedded ball rule to be applied throughout the golf course, including the rough. That is what the new rules will deal with.”

Ball in motion accidentally deflected

Proposal: “If a ball in motion is accidentally deflected by you or your equipment, there will be no penalty and the ball will be played from where it comes to rest.”

Rickman says: “Things obviously happen to a ball in motion and we feel that this is, in essence, an accident of play.

“Going forward, if the ball accidentally comes back and hits you, your caddie, equipment, someone attending the flagstick, we are not going to apply a penalty.”

Repairing spike marks

Proposal: “It will be OK to repair spike marks and any other damage done by shoes, damage from a club and almost all other damage on the putting green.”

Rickman says: ‘Repairing damage (was) one where we thought about this long and hard – very conscious that one of our primary aims was to speed the game up and allowing more repairs seems to be taking a step in the wrong direction there.

“But I think if you imagine the circumstances where this is allowed, we believe that every player is going to be repairing bits of damage so I think the general condition of putting greens is going to be kept at a much higher level.”

2019 rules of golf

Leaving the flagstick in the hole

Proposal: “If you make a stroke from on the green and your ball hits the flagstick in the hole, there will be no penalty.”

Rickman says: “We’re going to allow people to putt with the flagstick in the hole, particularly when putting from distance in recreational golf and amateur golf. We think this will save a lot of time.”

Relaxed rules in a penalty area

Proposal: “You are allowed to ground your club and remove loose impediments in a penalty area (an expanded concept of water hazards).”

Rickman says: “We are not applying the same restrictions to touching a water hazard that exist at the moment.”


2019 rules of golf

Proposals: “There is no longer a penalty if you touch or move loose impediments in a bunker.

“You are now prohibited only from touching the sand (1) with your hand or club to test the condition of the bunker or (2) with your club in the area right behind or in front of the ball, in making a practice swing or in making the backswing for your stroke

“For two penalty strokes, you may take relief outside the bunker by dropping a ball back on a line from the hole through where your ball was at rest in the bunker.”

Rickman says: “We are going to allow the touching and removing of loose impediments in a bunker. It’s not really part of the strategic challenge of the bunker. Most people find them hard enough to extract themselves from.

“We think that allowing people to touch loose impediments is a simplification and again removes the possibility of technical penalties.

“To try and help new players to the game, there will be an unplayable ball option that will allow players to get out of the bunker, without playing a stroke, but it is going to cost them two penalty strokes and they are going to have to go in behind the bunker.

“So it is always about trying to balance enabling people to keep playing golf but, equally so, we really want people to try and play from the bunkers – that’s the point of them.”

Replacing a damaged club

Proposal: “You will not be allowed to replace a damaged club during the round if you were responsible for the damage.”

Rickman says: “The current rule is horribly complicated where you have to try and find out: how did the damage happen? Is the club now unfit for play? Have the playing characteristics changed? You’ve got to ask a whole series of questions.

“The new rules are going to say ‘you’ve got 14 clubs, look after them’. If you damage one of them, you can continue to use it in its damaged state. However, you have damaged it, but we are not going to allow you to replace it.

“If you can, and you are able to, you can repair the club.”

Distance measuring devices

2019 rules of golf

Proposal: “You may use DMDs to measure distance, except when prohibited by local rule.”

Rickman says: “A bit like with embedded balls, we are reversing the local rule so the common practice today is to allow distance measuring devices. That’s what the rule will say.

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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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