Rules of Golf explained

Have the 2019 Rules of Golf been a success?

As we wait to see what’s in the first review of the new Rules of Golf, Steve Carroll assesses the impact of those seismic changes four years ago

They arrived in a flurry of publicity and, in some cases, no little confusion. Who can forget Haotong Li’s caddie being penalised in Dubai, or Rickie Fowler’s less than complimentary gesture when executing a knee high drop?

But golf went on and the huge raft of changes brought in when the new Rules of Golf were published in 2019 settled in.

It’s easy to forget now how seismic some of those alterations were. Rules that had been in place for decades were swept away. The way those rules were communicated, including the very language used to explain them, was radically altered.

It was the biggest change to the way we played the game since 1984. But rules aren’t just written and that’s that.

They are studied, considered, witnessed on the course, and analysed. That culminates in a four-year review cycle, and the results of the first of those are due to be announced soon ahead of their implementation in January 2023.

So as we wait to see to what extent the 2019 bible will get some tinkering, let’s take a look back at the last four years to assess whether the current generation of rules have been a success and what might be improved.

The Rules of Golf are easier to understand

Some of you will argue with me on this point, and my choc-a-bloc inbox of questions might also suggest otherwise. But I’ve still got copies of previous iterations of the Rules and they’re incomprehensible at points.

It’s not much what the book is trying to say, but the way it’s expressed and the language used.

I’ve managed to go from having no great knowledge of the rules at all to the pinnacle of a Level 3 exam in just two and a half years (and it would probably have been faster had it not been for Covid getting in the way).

Yes, I put in the work – hundreds of hours of it, in fact – but I’m certain I would not have been able to make such progress using the 2016 and older rule books.

It’s now much easier to read. Numerous diagrams explain, in simple terms, key areas like the teeing area, penalty area relief, and out of bounds.

And the introduction of the app, which is even easier to navigate, means it’s all at the touch of a button and at your fingertips. The R&A Rules Academy gives everyone the basics and allows them to sit the Level 1 exam free of charge. We have never been better served when it comes to understanding the game.

rules of golf

They have made playing the game more straightforward

No more weird penalties. Remember when you had to tack on a stroke if you accidentally stepped on your ball while looking for it, or if a poorly struck shot cannoned off you?

Remember when you were penalised for a double hit, or if you feathered your ball on the putting green during a practice stroke?

I had to look up some of these. They are gone and long forgotten. A big part of the rules review was to try and remove some of the procedural penalties that only seemed there to make you cross and wish you’d never taken up the game.

And while some of you are still complaining about the knee-high drop, knowing that most of the time you are going to release that ball in a relief area has made the entire process far less complicated.

What have been the best changes?

There are quite a few to choose from and let’s first give honourable mentions to being always able to substitute a ball when taking relief, embedded ball relief in the general area, and being able to take unplayable ball relief outside of a bunker.

But here are a trio that have had a considerable effect on my game over the last four years…

Relaxed putting green rules: Allowing players to repair spike marks and other damage on the green has been very positive, and the fear that golfers would unreasonably delay play hasn’t materialised. Thanks to Covid, I almost universally now keep the flagstick in the hole when I putt.

Grounding a club in a penalty area: I always thought this was a pointless prohibition. I only ever fell foul of it when slipping while trying to hit it out a stream. Whether you could ground your club or not didn’t in any way alter the difficulty of what was coming next. This has been a very welcome alteration.

Accidentally moving your ball during a search: I’ve mentioned this already, but how annoying was it to tack on a shot when you inadvertently shifted your ball when trying to find it? It always felt the pettiest of punishments. How can you sanction me for searching? Given how much time I spend looking for my ball, this has been an incredibly worthwhile change!

But… some things are open to interpretation

Clearly you can’t have an Official Guide to the Rules of Golf that’s thousands of pages long but I do miss having the chance to rummage through the old Decisions book.

One of the great things about that tome was that if it had happened on a course the chances were that someone had asked the R&A and USGA about it and it had been recorded in the Decisions for everyone to see.

The interpretations do a remarkable job of trying to fill that gap, and the Rules themselves have evolved to answer some of those Decisions situations, but, inevitably, they can’t cover everything.

What would I change?

Searching for a lost ball: I understand why everyone thought five minutes was too long. I did too. One of the principal reasons was that hardly any club players timed themselves and it often ended up being seven minutes before you could persuade them to give up the hunt.

But having now refereed at some top-class events and had to monitor players myself, three minutes really isn’t any time at all – particularly if the search area is tricky. Could four minutes be a happy medium?

Virtually certain: This looks great in the Rules of Golf but out on the course I don’t think it works as intended. What I find is that players will try and claim anything is virtually certain – particularly when they present the classic ‘where else could it be?’ line.

It leads to disagreement when you explain that ‘thinking and believing’ are not the same as ‘known or virtually certain‘.

How do you even measure 95 per cent? Removing this and making ‘known’ the standard – do you know that your ball is in that penalty area? – would remove a lot of the interpretation that surrounds whether players can take penalty area relief or whether their ball has moved.

What have you made of the 2019 Rules of Golf changes? What has worked and what would you change if you were in charge? Why not let me know your thoughts by tweeting me.

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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