New Season, New Rules

Key regulation changes you need to know about

BY TOM MACKIN — Spring 2019

ive credit to the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith. When they unveiled the first Rules of Golf back in 1744, there were only 13 brief, simple points to follow. Things have gotten a wee bit more complicated over the ensuing centuries, to the point where the rule book now runs more than 200 pages. But at the first of the year, golf’s two governing bodies, the USGA and the R&A, unveiled a revised Rules of Golf — fortunately reducing the total number of said rules from 34 to 24 and even streamlining (for the most part) a lot of dense, hard-to-understand verbiage with a new Player’s Edition of the Rules of Golf. Here, we identify what triggered some of the changes and how the modifications might affect your game.

If you accidentally cause the ball to move on the putting green


Then: During the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club in western Pennsylvania, Dustin Johnson placed his putter behind his ball on the fifth green. After doing so, but without making direct contact, Johnson acknowledged the ball moved ever so slightly. The Rules official assigned to his group immediately declared no rules breach had occurred. But other USGA officials conducted a video review while Johnson continued playing the final round. At the 12th hole, officials notified Johnson he might be assessed a one-stroke penalty, but only after a post-round video review with D.J. present to get his perspective. Johnson did eventually receive that penalty, but he still won the championship by three strokes. The timing of his notification, the lengthy review process, and the penalty’s debatable nature caused a furor that led to a rule change.

Now: Under Rule 13.1d, there’s no penalty if you accidentally cause the ball to move on the putting green. Whether your putter grazes the ball, you mistakenly hit it with your foot, or you drop a club that moves it, just place the ball back in its original position. This new rule basically went into effect back in 2017 via a Local Rule that could be used in competitions. Now it officially applies everywhere.

If the ball hits you, your caddie, or equipment


Then: During his PGA Tour career, Jeff Maggert had 13 top-10 finishes in major championships, but an awkward rules situation during the 2003 Masters brought him unwanted attention. Entering the final round with a two-shot lead, Maggert hit his ball into a fairway bunker on the par-4 third hole. His next wedge shot caromed off the bunker’s lip and ricocheted backward, striking him. Per Rule 19-2b that resulted in a two-stroke penalty and Maggert eventually finished fifth.

Now: It’s far too late for Maggert, but you’re off the hook if this situation happens to you. Thanks to Rule 11.1, accidental deflections incur no penalty and you simply play the ball as it lies, with a handful of exceptions. Just don’t go thinking you can use a club or a cart as a backstop — do that on purpose, and you’ll be hit with a penalty under Rule 11.2a.

If you must take a drop


Then: Rule 20-2a stated that the approved dropping procedure when taking relief (from an abnormal course condition or penalty area, for example) required fully extending your arm at shoulder level and then dropping the ball to the ground.

Now: Under Rule 14.3b, rather than shoulder height, drop the ball from knee height. It still can’t touch your body or equipment on the way down, though it’s OK if it does accidentally after it hits the ground. Simple physics means your ball will now likely end up in a better lie. Then again, there is a reason why you’re dropping your ball, isn’t there? Here’s hoping for drop-free rounds.

If your ball’s unplayable in a bunker

Then: Declaring a ball unplayable in a bunker — remember that time it plugged right under the lip? — left you with three options: two involved dropping the ball within the same bunker, while a third choice required you to drop the ball at the spot of the previous stroke. All incurred a one-stroke penalty.

Now: You’ll pay a higher price — two strokes instead of one — but with a new option under Rule 19.3b, you can drop the ball right outside the bunker (or as far back from it as you want) while staying in direct line with the flagstick. If your sand game isn’t as sharp as it needs to be, this might be your best alternative. 

If you hit the flagstick with your ball


Then: If the flagstick was in the hole and your ball hit it while you were putting on the green, you incurred a two-shot penalty under Rule 17-3. 

Now: Leave it in. Take it out. Do whichever you want. Under Rule 13.2a(2), the choice is up to you since there is no longer a penalty for hitting the flagstick. One catch: If you have someone attending the flagstick, it has to be taken out. You can’t change your mind after the ball is struck and tell the attendant to leave it in. Noted short-game instructor Dave Pelz, who currently works with Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, and Brendan Steele, points to a scientific reason for not removing the flagstick. “When you hit the standard fiberglass flagstick, it absorbs a lot of energy from the ball. After impact, the ball heads backward at a much slower speed, enabling it to fall down far enough below the edge of the hole so that it can’t get out. You should never, ever, miss a 3-footer now with the flagstick in the hole. Instead of playing any break at all, just aim right at the center of the cup, hit it a little harder, and the ball should go in every time.”

If you double hit the ball

Then: During the final round of the 1985 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan, T.C. Chen arrived at the fifth hole with a four-shot lead. While Chen pitched out from heavy greenside rough, his club hit the ball twice, earning Chen a one-stroke penalty under Rule 14-4 and unfortunately attaching his name forever to similar situations (“You just T.C. Chenned that one!”). More recently, Tiger Woods found himself under scrutiny in relation to this rule. During the Hero World Challenge, a tournament he hosted in the Bahamas last fall, his ball ended up underneath a palmetto bush. Down on one knee, he swiped the ball back toward the fairway. A slow-motion replay showed that the ball appeared to stay on the clubface longer than usual. However, because there are limitations on the use of video evidence (per Decision No. 34-3/10), no penalty was assessed. 

Now: The Rules have removed the penalty stroke for accidentally striking the ball more than once in the course of a stroke. Under Rule 10.1a, just count the one stroke you made to strike the ball and play it as it lies.

Picking Up the Pace

The new Rules include some changes designed specifically to speed things up out on the course, including these notables.

• The amount of time allowed to search for a lost ball has been decreased from five minutes to three minutes, according to Rule 18.2. Also, if you accidentally move your ball while searching for it — perhaps kicking it while searching in tall grass — there’s no longer a one-stroke penalty. Just put it back in its original location (Rule 7.4).

• Did you hit a ball out of bounds without hitting a provisional? Or you just can’t find your ball after a three-minute search? Under Rule 18.1b, you would need to walk back to the original spot you hit from after your fruitless search, drop a ball, incur a one-stroke penalty, and hit again. But thanks to a Local Rule that a club or committee can implement, you can now drop a ball in the area between where it went out of bounds, or was lost, and the edge of the nearest fairway on the hole you’re playing. A timesaver for sure, but it will cost you two penalty strokes. 


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