Rule changes: Fairness + simplicity = common sense


Less than three weeks after Phil Mickelson committed one of the year’s most obscure and esoteric rule violations at the Presidents Cup, the R&A and USGA unveiled what sources characterized as a “simplified” edition of the Rules of Golf.

Monday’s announcement of the 2016 edition was a dramatically condensed version of what we’ve come to expect from the ruling bodies.

The entire release totaled five pages, featured just four “significant changes” explained in concise paragraph form and included a “fun facts” page with a single telling tidbit that at least partially explains the need for simplification – there are an average of 8,000 rules inquiries made to the USGA each year.

“When you increase subjectivity you also increase complexity,” explained Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of the Rules of Golf, when asked about the current simplification process. “The stated objective is to find a way to simplify the rules; that’s our primary focus moving forward.”

No one needs to explain to Mickelson that the Rules of Golf can be a minefield even for the most accomplished players after he violated the one-ball condition during his fourball match on Day 2 at the Presidents Cup earlier this month and was assessed a one-hole “match adjustment.”

Rules of Golf update: Anchoring ban, incorrect scorecard

“I had never even heard of a match adjustment. That one’s new,” said Mickelson, who added that he was confused by a rule that allows multiple types of golf balls to be played during foursome matches, but only a single model during fourball play.

Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules and competition, has a standing joke that the public only sees him when something goes wrong and a majority of the fires Russell puts out are a result of mostly innocent rules violations.

Example: the snafu Camilo Villegas endured at the 2011 Hyundai Tournament of Champions when he misplayed a chip and as the ball rolled back down a hill toward him he flipped aside a divot.

Unaware of the violation and required penalty, Villegas signed an incorrect scorecard and was disqualified under Rule 6-6d, which was one of the changes announced Monday.

Under the new rule, Villegas would have been issued a two-stroke penalty for the scorecard violation, along with the penalty for moving the divot, but would have been allowed to play on; or as one Golf Channel colleague described it recently, you no longer are given the death penalty for jaywalking.

“I think a DQ is a little harsh,” Billy Horschel said. “There are certain rules where it is a little much. If I’m over a putt and I haven’t touched the ball and the wind gusts and blows the ball, how is that my fault?”

Under the change to Rule 18-2b it is no longer a player’s fault. In fact, in what has the underpinnings of a profound philosophical shift among the game’s rule makers, a player is no longer guilty until proven innocent when a golf ball moves at address.

“The player is not automatically deemed to have caused the ball to move ... only when the facts show that the player has caused the ball to move,” the new text read. Or, in other words, innocent until proven guilty.

While Monday’s changes fall well short of a “Golf for Dummies” rule book and the prohibition on anchoring that also begins on Jan. 1 is sure to produce additional confusion – for the record, both hovering and inadvertent brushing would not be considered anchoring (discuss) – but it is part of a larger narrative that has been ongoing within rule-making circles for some time.

Pagel conceded as much during a conference call announcing the changes. He added that the focus for the R&A and USGA rules committees will now turn to broader simplifications.

“There is a project underway with the R&A to see if there is a way to simplify the rules. Are there wholesale ways to help simplify it?” Pagel said.

Even after this most recent revision there seems to be plenty of room for improvement, either at the amateur level – as evidenced by the 8,000 or so rules questions each year – or at the top reaches of the game.

There is no shortage of opinions on the Rules of Golf.

“Hitting the fairway and being in a divot is the perfect definition of ground under repair,” Horschel said. “You’re rewarded for hitting the green; you’re allowed to fix ball marks on the green if it’s in your line. It would be similar if you were in the fairway and you land in a divot. How can I not get away from a divot?”

Although Horschel’s take is exactly what one would expect from a player who hits as many fairways as the 2014 FedEx Cup champion, it fits with a set of rules that gave us “match adjustment.”

“It’s a balancing act of inserting fairness, but also the ultimate goal of making it more simple,” Pagel said.

Perhaps the most encouraging change is that shift, however subtle, to insert common sense into a process that at times seems to be severely lacking in both fairness and simplicity.