Changing the Rules

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” Albert Einstein

It was announced last week that the governing bodies of golf would be undertaking a revision of the Rules of Golf to make them simpler to understand and easier to follow.

This effort will be different than the usual exercise of “tweaking” the Rules every four years and adding a few hundred more pages to the Decisions on the Rules of Golf. No doubt this was instigated in part by the intense negative backlash that occurred following Rules debacles during the USGA’s two highest profile events this past summer: the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Opens.

In case anybody has forgotten, let me remind you. At the Men’s Open at Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh, the greens are sloped beyond belief, with false fronts, plateaus and potato chip contours. Then just to make life truly unbearable, the green speeds are ratcheted up to 15 on the Stimpmeter. And that’s for member play! During the U.S. Open final round, with the wind gusting, Dustin Johnson may, or may not have, caused his ball to move when he was making a practice swing before putting on the 5th green.

Like all good professionals, who should know the Rules but always want to be sure, DJ called in a Rules Official to explain what happened and ask how to proceed. After listening, the Rules Official decided that no infraction had occurred and DJ could proceed without penalty. But this being a USGA event, no decision is final until somebody can review it on a high definition TV monitor and of course, until fans watching at home have stopped calling.

Several holes later, Johnson was advised by a different USGA official that, in fact, he may have incurred a penalty and a final decision would be made upon completion of his round. So DJ and all those players chasing him had to complete the U.S. Open without knowing the leader’s real score. What a fiasco!

Even USGA Executive Director Mike Davis acknowledged that they had bungled that situation and steps would be taken to immediately amend their process so that a final ruling could be conveyed to players much more quickly. Little did he know that just a couple of weeks later at the U.S. Women’s Open, they would have an opportunity to test the new procedure during a playoff between Brittany Lang and Anna Nordqvist.

The U.S. Women’s Open uses an aggregate three hole playoff to determine the winner if players are tied after regulation play. Both players made par on the first playoff hole. On the second hole, Nordqvist had hit her tee shot into a bunker and played her second to the fairway. Both players made par there also.

But the trailer troll who watches play on a high definition TV for the USGA, advised Rules Officials that Nordqvist had grounded her club in the sand and therefore incurred a two-shot penalty. Replays of the event in super slow motion did actually show that a couple of grains of sand were dislodged. CHEATER!

Naturally, the USGA kicked into high gear once again and using their new policy of advising players of a penalty as soon as possible, they informed Lang and Nordqvist on the very next hole. Unfortunately, they told Nordqvist after she had hit her second shot on the par 5 hole but before Lang had hit hers – obviously an advantage for Lang, as she played safely the rest of the way and won the title.

WOW! The USGA just bungled their bungle.

So now we have a situation where the governing bodies of golf, which obviously includes the USGA, will undertake a review of the Rules of Golf. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to mention another of Albert Einstein’s famous quotes, “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.”

As my colleague Dave Kaplan mentioned in a recent column, the NFL has been trying to define what a catch is for more than five years and every new attempt makes the definition murkier. The current Rules of Golf sent to me by Golf Canada is a 209 page booklet that includes definitions, 34 actual Rules, 65 pages of appendices and an index. On top of that, the Decisions book is hundreds of pages of rulings on the most isolated once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. The Rules people love this stuff. They eat, sleep and breathe it. Can we really expect the USGA and other blue blazered entities to make the Rules of Golf simpler?

Probably not. But almost any Saturday hacker can. In fact, most of them already play by a set of rules that is easy to understand and could be adapted to any level of golf with a few tweaks. Let’s call them the Logical Rules.

I use “logical” because to many, the current Rules of Golf are anything but. Let me give you a couple of examples:

Example 1: There are situations on the course where you get free relief from things like sprinkler heads, cart paths, Ground Under Repair or casual water. In these instances, you get to DROP your ball within a club length without penalty. A drop is pretty imprecise and a club length is a little more than three feet yet nobody, including all the Rules experts, thinks there is anything wrong with that. So why do they get so out of sorts when a ball moves just a millimetre or two on the green?

Example 2: To most golfers a lost ball is just that – a lost ball. They don’t differentiate if the ball is in the woods, the water or somebody’s backyard. It’s still lost and that’s several bucks down the drain. To add insult to injury, they know they’re going to have to pay some kind of penalty. Why do they have to re-hit in some cases (out of bounds or lost ball) and drop within two club lengths in others (water hazard, lateral hazard)? It doesn’t make sense to most.

There are other situations too but what most golfers find confusing is that the Rules of Golf don’t seem consistent. Sometimes it’s OK to move your ball a considerable distance and other times it’s a penalty to move it a fraction of an inch. Most of the time you are trusted not to improve your lie in a bunker or the rough or use a shoe wedge from behind a tree but that trust evaporates when someone thinks you may have caused your ball to move on the green, even when you say you didn’t. Do they trust you or not?

It’s all very frustrating but until they are changed, the current Rules of Golf are all we have. They still govern play for both competition and handicap purposes, even if a vast majority of casual golfers don’t abide by them. My Logical Rules will no doubt offend the purists but hopefully make sense to most and with a few tweaks could govern play at any level. Here goes:

Rule #1. Hit the ball from the teeing ground and keep hitting it until it is in the hole.

Rule #2. Clubs and balls must conform to specifications set out by the governing bodies but you can have as many clubs as you want.

Rule #3. All fairways are defined as Ground Under Repair. If your ball is in a divot or you don’t like your lie, drop the ball within one club length not nearer the hole. No penalty. Proceed under Rule #1.

Rule #4. The maintained area adjacent to the fairway is rough. Balls in the rough must be played as found. Exception: you can take relief from an unplayable lie at any time with a one stroke penalty. Proceed under Rule #1.

Rule #5. All areas outside the fairway and the rough are defined as lateral hazards. This includes Out of Bounds, Lateral Hazards, Water Hazards, woods, fescue and any other natural or artificial Gorp you may find. (Gorp is an official term for any area you probably don’t want to be.) You may play your ball from a hazard but if it can’t be found or you don’t like your lie, take a drop in the ROUGH at the point your ball entered the hazard or went OB. One stroke penalty. Proceed under Rule #1.

Rule #6. Bunkers There is no relief in a bunker but loose impediments such as stones, pine cones, leaves and cigar butts may be removed. Exception: if you are in somebody else’s unraked footprint, you may lift the ball, rake the area and replace your ball. No penalty. Proceed under Rule #1.

Rule #7. Equity. If you do anything that might have contravened the old Rules of Golf but did not intend to do it and did not gain any advantage, there is no penalty. Correct the error and proceed under Rule #1.

Rule #8. All disputes shall be settled between the players at the time of occurrence in keeping with the spirit of Rule #7. Use of high definition TV is not permitted. Any fan interference including calling in suspected infractions is strictly forbidden.

If the USGA had adopted Rule #7 of the Logical Rules, the Dustin Johnson and Anna Nordqvist fiascos could have been avoided. No penalty in either case because neither player intended to do what they did but more importantly, neither player gained any advantage.

Many people will argue that the Logical Rules don’t cover enough situations. Fine, go ahead and add more Rules but don’t be surprised if the majority of golfers ignore them.

Golf doesn’t actually need more Rules. It just needs more common sense. Unfortunately common sense is like deodorant – the people who need it most are the least likely to use it.

Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

5 thoughts on “Changing the Rules

  1. Your Rules make a lot of sense to me… especially allowing as many clubs as a player cares to use, and a universal one stroke penalty for a lost ball or unplayable lie.

  2. I hit my ball out of bounds. I didn’t intend to do it and I certainly did not gain an advantage. No penalty?

    I lost my ball. I am not sure where (it’s lost). Where do I drop?

    I am playing at Pinehurst #2. It is almost all closely mown with no rough. Is it all ground under repair? If I lose a ball or hit one out of bounds, where do I drop?

    1. Hi Brad – thanks for the comments.

      Out of Bounds is already covered in Rule #5. Intent & advantage are supposed to cover things like accidentally moving your ball or knocking a leaf off a tree during a practice swing.

      If you lost your ball & don’t know where, you treat it as if it went into a lateral hazard. You should know the approximate point it crossed the margin of the hazard, so drop it within 2 club lengths of that point, not nearer the hole. If in doubt, resolve it with your playing partners.

      I haven’t seen Pinehurst No 2 since the changes. I’m sure we could figure out an equitable place to take a drop.


    1. Hi Brad – thanks for the comments. Apart from elite amateur and pro events, I think most people use some form of these rules. They vary from group to group but the main thing is the players figure out a set of rules that works for them and then they go enjoy their game.


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