Englishman Simon Dyson is a poster boy for the need to modernize and simplify golf's rules.
After tapping down a spike mark on the line of a putt during a tournament in China in 2013, Dyson was disqualified, fined $49,000 and banned for two months from the European Tour. Furthermore, he was busted for the offense only after being caught by a fan watching on television.
The ban later was rescinded, but Dyson may want to ask for some of that money back.
Golf's governing bodies, the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A, proposed rules changes this year that would have vindicated him on two counts, had they been in effect before his infraction. One, the proposals would allow players to tap down spike marks. Two, a new rule would state that when measuring a spot or distance, a player's reasonable judgment will not be second-guessed based on later evidence (such as video review).
Modernize and simplify golf’s rules? It’s hard to find anyone who’s against it.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Williamsville North golf coach John Burns, who serves as a rules official for high school and Buffalo district junior golf. “I think the USGA is taking a more common-sense approach and moving toward what people do anyway.”
“The more I thought about it as a tournament direction,” said Ric Alberico, Western New York PGA tournament director, “it would just make it all easier. . . . And speeding up the game would help the game of golf.”
There are 34 different rules in the official “Rules of Golf” book. The new proposals, which would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, cut the number down to 24.
Golf rules are complicated for somewhat the same reason the U.S. tax code is complicated. People tend to look for ways to gain an advantage. In fact, the USGA annually puts out a separate book titled “Decisions on the Rules of Golf” that explains difficult situations. It’s generally 500 pages long, because, you know, stuff happens.
Such as: If you hit a shot through a clubhouse window, which is not out of bounds, can you open a door to hit the next shot? And: Are spider webs loose impediments?
“I’ve experienced members who have quit playing golf because their playing partners were such sticklers on the rules even in casual golf that it was overly stressful,” Alberico said. “They didn’t want to do it anymore because they were afraid of making a mistake.”
Anything the game can do to make rules easier probably is good. A look at some of the 30 proposed changes:
Relaxed putting rules: Currently golfers can fix ball marks in their line but not spike marks. It’s more of a problem for the pros, many who use metal spikes, but plenty of amateurs drag their feet with plastic spikes. Furthermore, the new rules will allow golfers to leave the flag stick in on putts and allow for touching of the line of the putt.
“For the average person in a casual round, I think a lot of people tap it down anyways, without thinking about whether it’s a ball mark or a spike mark,” Burns said.
Searching for lost balls: The current rule allows 5 minutes to look. The new rule is 3 minutes. “Amen,” said Alberico. In addition, if a ball accidentally is moved while a player or fellow competitor searches for it, there will be no penalty.
Bunker play: The new rules will allow players to remove loose impediments near the ball; leaves or stones that are in the way. Also, there will be no penalty for accidentally touching the sand (as long as it’s not directly in front or behind the ball or an obvious attempt to test the condition of the sand).
“That’s a common sense rule,” Burns said. “Nobody wants to go into a bunker and wreck a wedge because they hit a stone.”
Ball moving on the green: If you accidentally cause your ball to move on the green, with your foot or a practice stroke or with a ball marker, there will be no penalty. Just put the ball back where it was. Dustin Johnson was dinged a stroke for accidentally moving the ball before making a putt at last June’s U.S. Open. (He won by three, anyway.)
“Nowadays everyone thinks you need tremendously fast greens and everybody’s cutting their greens short,” said Buffalo district rules director Whitey Nichols. “On a lot of the old style courses, like Oakmont last year, the greens are smaller and sloped. When you shave them down, they slope so much that the wind or even gravity is going to make the ball move.”
Drops: When taking relief or dropping a ball in a drop zone after hitting in the water, golfers won’t have to drop the ball from shoulder height. The new rule would allow a player to drop from just above the grass, an inch from the ground, in effect. Why not?
Relief: To make sure every player has the same available area for relief, distances, instead of club lengths will be used for relief. If a ball lands on a drain or cart path or next to any other immovable obstruction, you will drop within 20 inches away. In taking relief from a lateral hazard or a penalty area, you get 80 inches.
Range-finders: These will be legal for measuring distances during rounds.
Red stakes: Golf courses will be encouraged to make more hazards red stakes, not yellow, to allow for lateral relief. This would speed up play. Hazards with yellow stakes require the golfer to be penalized a stroke and then play the next shot from the same spot (not where it went into the hazard).
This is a rule many tournament officials would like to see expanded. Alberico, Burns and Nichols all said they would like to see out of bounds stakes changed to red areas, eliminating the stroke-and-distance penalty.
“I wish they would make out of bounds the same ruling as lateral hazard,” Alberico said. “I’d put red all around the outside of the golf course instead of white stakes, just to speed up play. I always thought out of bounds in most cases is too severe.”
“Red all around would not be the end of the world,” Nichols said. “I wouldn’t have a problem with it.