Tour reaction to rule changes brings out the B-word

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MEXICO CITY – It’s whispered in quiet corners, but never in mixed company and never lightly.

It’s generally agreed that bifurcation of the Rules of Golf is simply riddled with too many unintended consequences to ever be taken seriously, that the central tenets of the game should apply equally and universally to those who play for pleasure and those who compete for a purse.

But as the details of the USGA and R&A’s proposed rule changes were unveiled on Wednesday at the WGC-Mexico Championship the concept - if not the actual application - of bifurcation began to gain some curious momentum.

Graham DeLaet responded to a tweet from the PGA Tour about the proposed modernization of the rules with a pointed tweet of his own: “We should have our own [rule] book and distance ourselves from amateur governing bodies.”

DeLaet later added, “Fact is, there’s an old boys club [USGA] based in New Jersey that have never hit a shot on Tour who make decisions that affect our families.”

Earlier in the day, Daniel Berger opined on social media: “Maybe there should be professional rules and amateur rules because I’m not getting a good vibe about some of these proposed changes.” Justin Thomas re-tweeted Berger, adding, “Agree with this. Some rules good, others not crazy about (fixing spike marks will be abused, grounding club in bunkers).”

A conversation that’s normally kept within the family had suddenly become public record.

Thomas’ take, as least as it applies to the 30 proposed rules changes that were introduced Wednesday, was shared by many of his Tour frat brothers assembled this week for the year’s first World Golf Championship.

“A couple things need to be tweaked a little bit,” said Brandt Snedeker, who, like many other players, applauded the move by the USGA and R&A to simplify the rules. “I don’t know about grounding your club in a bunker. That could be misconstrued and not kept in the spirit of the game. For the most part there’s lots of great stuff, lots of common sense stuff to help speed up the game.”


Full list: Proposed changes to Rules of Golf

Rules of Golf modernization: Articles, explanations and videos


Under the proposed changes a player would be “prohibited only from touching the sand with your hand or club to test the condition of the bunker or with your club in the area right behind or in front of the ball, in making a practice swing or in making the backswing for your stroke.” Accidentally touching the sand, however, is not a violation, a change of course that prompted a few double takes.

“It’s still a little bit unclear where you can ground your club in a bunker but you can’t ground it for testing. So if I lean on it, is that considered testing?” asked William McGirt.

It’s these types of questions the rule makers are looking to address during the six-month comment period. Perhaps the players and Tour can come to some sort of common ground here, but if Wednesday’s reaction was any indication it’s doubtful the Tour and its players could reach an agreement on the use of distance-measuring devices.

All but one player of 10 polled said they couldn’t imagine the Tour adopting the new proposed rule change that would allow for distance-measuring devices.

“I personally hope not,” Lucas Glover said when asked if he thought Tour players should be allowed to use DMDs. “I don't think it will speed up play; people will be getting cover numbers with their laser all over the place, plus it takes away the advantage of a good caddie.”

Under the proposed new rule the Tour could adopt a local rule that would continue to prohibit DMDs during tournament rounds, an option most players thought was the most likely outcome. But wouldn’t that adjustment simply be a form of bifurcation, however limited it may be?

Most of the time when the “B” word is floated it’s during a conversation about modern golf equipment, but as the rule makers look to modernize golf, the scope could easily expand to the central themes of the game.

“There are probably already two sets of rules. With range finders we are getting the same number, it’s not any different," Berger told GolfChannel.com. "The only difference is whether you click a button and do it or my caddie walks it off. But it’s the tradition of having a caddie back to the 1800s. For amateurs, for sure. How can you not have a range finder out there? It takes an hour longer in a round to have to get your yardages.”

To be clear, bifurcation isn’t something either the Tour or the rule makers have much interest in. Slugger White, vice president of rules and competition for the Tour, told Golf Channel this week that two sets of rules aren’t an option. But the truth is recreational golfers everywhere already play a modified version of the rules.

“Around golf courses most guys don’t play anything near to a set of rules,” Brendan Steele said. “When was the last time a couple of buddies went out and had a ball move on a green and assessed a penalty on each other? I don’t think that happens very much.”

In some ways, the proposed changes could bring that portion of the golf public closer to the game that is played at the highest level, but at what cost?

“I like the way the game is right now," Berger said. "It seems like they have proposed some pretty drastic changes and I’ve played golf for 12 years now with these rules so I guess any type of change is interesting.” 

The key component of Wednesday’s announcement is “proposed changes,” and over time the Tour and the rule makers could ease into alignment on the different adjustments, but the move has certainly made the concept of bifurcation a bit more of a common topic.