If nothing else the last few weeks has proven that there’s nothing simple about the simplification of the Rules of Golf.
The rule makers’ current relationship status would best be described as complicated after a confusing news cycle that included one of the game’s greatest champions being questioned over his style of putting and an up-and-coming star’s statement victory being overshadowed by a convoluted new ruling.
In both cases, neither the former (Bernhard Langer) nor the latter (Jon Rahm) deserve the cloud of doubt that always accompanies a rules controversy. In both cases, the slings and arrows have been wildly misdirected because neither Langer nor Rahm violated any rules, at least not the way the rules are currently written.
For Langer, those who question whether he’s violating the rule (14-1b) that prohibits the anchoring of a club when making a stroke, the concerns are valid, but the German is not the culprit here.
“We are confident that the rule has been applied fairly and consistently and have seen no evidence of a player breaching the rule, which does not prohibit a hand or club to touch a player’s clothing in making a stroke,” the USGA said in a statement.
Langer issued a similar statement, which likely did little to placate those who see a violation of either the letter of the law or the spirit of the rule, which began in 2016. But this current brouhaha is no more Langer’s issue than Sunday’s snafu at the Irish Open was Rahm’s.
During the final round of a commanding performance at Portstewart, Rahm marked his ball on the sixth green slightly to the side of playing partner Daniel Im’s mark. When the Spaniard replaced his ball he appeared to put it back directly in front of the mark, not to the side.
Rahm, who went on to win the event by six strokes, explained to a European Tour rules official that, “I think I made an effort to put it back to the side.” Under a new rule created in the wake of a similar penalty that cost Lexi Thompson at the ANA Inspiration in April, Rahm was absolved of any wrongdoing.
“Do I think he's got the ball in exactly the right place? No, I don't. I think the ball is slightly in the wrong place, but we're talking about maybe a couple millimeters here or there,” said European Tour chief rules official Andy McFee. “So then that falls within the limitation of video evidence, and it comes down to has the player made a reasonable judgment? And I believe he has.”
For both Langer and Rahm this is essentially a question of intent. Did Langer intend to gain a competitive advantage by letting his hand graze his shirt during a putting stroke? Did Rahm – who, again, won by a touchdown minus the extra point – need to be an inch or two closer to the hole to coax in his 2-footer at the sixth on Sunday?
In both cases, those who make and those who enforce the rules say no. Common sense, or reasonable judgment, prevailed on both fronts, which is a victory by any measure considering that for too long the Rules of Golf were far too rigid.
The problem here is that as a result of this newfound grey area, Langer and Rahm are both left playing defense in the court of public opinion, however unfair that may be. Neither broke a rule nor, let’s be honest, did anything that should be considered unsavory, yet they find themselves under attack by both traditional and social media.
Earlier this year the USGA and R&A announced a list of proposed rule changes they hope will simplify and modernize the game. The vast majority of these changes have been applauded as true progress, but as recent events have indicated unintended consequences can ruin the best of plans.
Hindsight can be a ruthless judge and jury but then the guardians of the game are not exactly batting above the Mendoza Line in recent years.
Consider the ban on anchoring, which some saw as a reaction to major victories by players using anchored putting strokes. Since the ban in ’16, the putting average on the PGA Tour has remained statistically unchanged (1.78) compared to the three years before the ban.
Similarly, the 2010 ban of square grooves, or U-grooves, has done little to slow the play-for-pay set. In the eight years prior to the move to V-shaped grooves, which were supposed to produce less spin particularly from the rough, the average Tour professional hit his approach shot from the rough (150-175 yards) to 45 feet. In the eight years since the ban on square grooves, that average has dropped to 42 feet, 5 inches.
Rulemaking types will contend these are equipment issues and shouldn’t be compared to the new rule that kept Rahm from being penalized in Ireland or Langer on the PGA Tour Champions, but the lessons are no less valid.
Earlier this year USGA chief executive Mike Davis indicated that the ongoing simplification of the Rules of Golf won’t stop at the 36 proposed significant changes, which is encouraging given the current landscape.
History shows there’s nothing simple about this process and that trial and error may be the rule makers’ best tool to avoid, or remedy, unintended consequences, like those that have unfairly turned a spotlight on Langer and Rahm.