For many years, the rules of golf ranked at the top of the scale of incomprehensible do’s and don’ts, along with the US Internal Revenue Code. Under the old rules, for example, you could fix a ball mark in the line of your putt on the green but not a spike mark. And your caddie could point to a target line for you but couldn’t touch the green itself. They could, however, brush debris off the green with their hat or towel but not their hand. Confused? Join the club.
Enter the USGA and its British counterpart, the R&A, which consolidated the 34 original rules to 24 this year, changing the stuffy, dated language along the way and hopefully making the rules a bit more commonsensical and the pace of play a little faster. While every golfer should read the new rule book cover to cover, here are some of the more striking rules changes you’ll encounter.
There’s no penalty now if you accidentally touch your ball or marker on the green, even while addressing it to putt. If it moves, just put is back in its original spot with no harm, no foul. If the wind or rain moves it before you mark you ball on the green, things are a little more complicated: You play the ball where it comes to rest. If you’ve already marked and replaced it before the wind blows it away, just put it back and play.
You can now leave the flagstick in the hole while you putt, and there’s no penalty if your ball strikes it. Under the old rules, you were penalized if your putt from anywhere on the green hit the flagstick, but not if your shot came from off the green. The new rule is intended to speed up play, but it may have the opposite effect, since each player gets to choose whether to leave the flagstick in or out. Preliminary studies by short-game guru Dave Pelz and others indicate that leaving the stick in the cup improves the chances of your ball dropping into the cup. Even if it glances off the stick, the ball is likely to stop closer to the hole.
One of the most irritating of the old rules prohibited you from tamping down spike marks on the green — even though you could repair ball marks. Talk about splitting hairs! Now, you can fix just about any unintended damage caused by another player or just about anything else. Animal tracks, embedded stones, spike marks left by the last player who danced in joy at making their putt, all can be fixed so that they don’t deflect your ball.
The old rule, which added a penalty stroke to the ignominy that came from hitting the ball twice with one swing, has given way to a much more humane approach. Now, there’s no penalty (aside from a little embarrassment); you just have to play the ball from where it lands. The same thing holds true if your ball somehow bounces back and hits you, your equipment, or your caddie. There’s no penalty stroke, although derisive laughter may ensue.
Need to search for a lost ball? Now, you have only three minutes, not five, to find it before you have to take a penalty stroke and return to the spot of the previous stroke to play again. The good news is, though, that clubs can invoke a local rule that allows you to drop on the nearest spot on the fairway (within two club-lengths of the edge) where the ball was believed to be lost. Same is true now for out-of-bounds penalties. Keep in mind that there’s still a two-stroke penalty, though, so it’s still a good idea to keep the ball in the fairway in the first place.
Need to take a drop? You now do so from knee-height, not shoulder height, so there’s less likelihood of the ball rolling away to necessitate repeated drops.
And hello “penalty areas.” That’s the new term for ponds, lakes, streams, as well as ravines, thick woods, barrancas, or other designated areas you probably can’t play a shot from. Hit into one, and you’ll still suffer a one-stroke penalty, but some (though not all) of the ways you take relief have been changed. If the penalty area is marked with yellow stakes or lines, you can play from where you played your original shot or drop on a line that extends from hole through the spot where the ball crossed into the penalty area, no nearer to the hole, but going back as far as you like. If it’s marked with red, you have an additional option to drop within two club lengths of the spot where the ball crossed the line. By the way, you can still try to play out of the penalty area and now you can even ground your club, move loose impediments, or put your club into the water, but you do have to play the ball as it lies.
Is your ball plugged under the lip? You can still declare the ball unplayable and drop it in the bunker or from where you played the original shot (taking a penalty stoke either way). Now, though, you have the option of taking a two-stroke penalty and dropping the ball outside the bunker on a line with the flagstick, no nearer to the hole. Hate playing from the sand? Now you have another — albeit expensive — option.
Got a rock behind your ball in the bunker? Now, finally, you can move it out of the way without incurring a penalty. Same for a twig, cigar butt, or other loose impediment. You can’t do that if you move your ball in the process, though, so if there’s a bit of greenery under your ball, leaf it alone (groan intended). Note that you still can’t touch the sand with a practice stroke or during your backstroke or otherwise test the condition of the sand before your swing.