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Proposed Golf Rule Changes

The USGA and R&A on Wednesday unveiled 30 proposed changes to the rules of golf. These changes are designed to make more consistent, fair and straightforward golf rules that are easier to understand and apply.

The changes span a wide range of issues – from grounding a club in a penalty area, to determining if a ball moved, to repairing damage on greens, to relaxing dropping procedures.

Usually the governing bodies will change rules every 4 years but this time they are doing it one year earlier on January 1, 2019. David Rickman is the R&A’s executive director and he believes the rules will make golf more straightforward.

One new rule, for example, is a change from 51 percent certainty to 95 percent certainty about whether or not a player caused his ball to move.

We all remember the Dustin Johnson case last year where he was penalized because the rule committee was 51% sure he caused it to move. The proposed rule change will only penalize players if it is absolutely clear that the player caused his ball to move.

Once cleared, the player will be able to replace his ball at the original spot it moved from without penalty, unless of course the player was clearly the cause, then they’ll get a penalty stroke.

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Another big rule change is the allowance of players to fix and repair damage on the green such as spike marks. Previously, players were only allowed to fix ball marks that interfered with their intended line. Now, under Rule 13.1b(1), players could try to create as smooth a surface as possible to roll their putts.

Some of the other proposed changes:

• Instead of dropping a ball at shoulder height, players can release the ball at any height above one inch. The area in which players are allowed relief is also expanded; rather than one or two club-lengths, there is now a defined relief area of 20 inches (cart paths, ground under repair, etc.) to 80 inches (unplayable lie, penalty area drops).

• Caddies cannot stand behind a player and help with alignment while the player takes a stance – a move that is most common in the LPGA, including with world No. 1 Lydia Ko.

• A player won’t be penalized if his ball accidently deflects off him. That’s what happened to Jeff Maggert in the 2003 Masters. Leading by two entering the final round, he received a two-shot penalty after his shot hit the lip of the bunker and rebounded off his body. He made triple bogey and finished fifth. Five years later, the penalty for an accidental deflection was reduced from two shots to one. Now, it is eliminated altogether, a nod to the unpredictability of the act and the inherent disadvantage if it occurred.

• The search time for lost balls is three minutes, not five.

• Players can move loose impediments in a bunker. There still is a penalty if a player (a) touches the sand to test the surface, or (b) touches the sand when making a backswing – the penalty that cost Anna Nordqvist a chance to win last year’s U.S. Women’s Open.

• Damaged clubs can be used in competition, even if the equipment was damaged in a fit of rage. Previously, only those clubs that were damaged in the “normal course of play” could still be used, so if, for instance, a player slammed his putter in disgust and bent the shaft, he would have no choice but to putt with a wedge or fairway wood for the remainder of the round.

• Players are entitled to free relief from an embedded lie anywhere (save for the bunker), unless limited to the fairway by a local rule.

• Rangefinders can be used to measure distances, except when prohibited by a local rule. It was not immediately known whether the pro tours would enforce that local rule, with players and caddies still responsible for calculating their own yardages.

• Committees are encouraged to mark more hazards with red stakes, not yellow, to allow lateral relief.

• In an attempt to improve pace of play at the recreational level, the governing bodies are encouraging ready golf; allowing putts to be holed with the flagstick in; and recommending an alternative form of stroke play with a double-par maximum score.

If all of the proposals are approved, the total number of rules would be reduced from 34 to 24. For the next 6 months, the R&A will be accepting feedback on the proposed rule changes before finalizing the rule book.

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