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Expect a little confusion, lots of questions as players adapt to new rules

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KAPALUA, Hawaii – The changes to the Rules of Golf starting on Tuesday were intended, at least in part, to speed up play and make the often confusing guidelines a little more user-friendly. But if player reaction this week at the Sentry Tournament of Champions is any indication the changes won’t accomplish either – at least in the short term.

The issue isn’t necessarily with the rules as much as it will be in the application of what will essentially be dramatic changes.

“The rules officials probably will be leaned on a little bit more than in the past,” Paul Casey said. “Initially, it might slow things down a bit.”

To help ease the transition, officials from the USGA were at Kapalua to meet with players Tuesday afternoon and walk them through the changes. The USGA will also hold another meeting next week at the Sony Open, the year’s first full-field event.

“We were looking at them today. There were some I didn’t know. I feel like I need to go to the seminar today,” Webb Simpson said.

Although the changes cover a variety of issues, from lost golf balls to alignment aids, the most talked about adjustments had to do with how players are allowed to take drops and what is now allowed on the putting green.

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Players can now take a drop from “knee height”. Although that sounds relatively simple, a poll of players in Maui suggested there is still some education that needs to be done.

“I’m not sure exactly what that means. Can you drop [while kneeling]?” Charles Howell III asked. “A lot more things have changed than you might have realized. I’ll be asking a lot of questions.”

Players also seemed baffled by the change that will allow the flagstick to remain in the hole even if a shot is being played from the putting surface. Although this rule is rather straightforward, most of those asked could imagine few scenarios where they would want the flag in the hole while putting.

“I think that’s really weird. I don’t get that,” Simpson said. “I’m taking it out. The only scenario of me leaving it in is if I hit a bunker shot to 2 inches and there are no caddies around [to pull the flag].”

Justin Thomas echoed Simpson’s thoughts when he was asked whether he’d ever putt with the flagstick in place. “I just, I truly, I can't, I wouldn't be able to take myself seriously. I just feel like it would be very, very weird,” he said.

In an interview last year, Bryson DeChambeau suggested he would leave the flag in while putting, depending on what type of flagstick was being used, going so far as pointing out the different coefficient of restitution (COR) of certain flagsticks.

“I’m not like Bryson DeChambeau and haven’t done any research yet to figure out the COR of the flagstick,” Casey said with a smile.

Tour types were also getting up to speed on what type of green-reading material will be allowed. Players can continue to use green-reading books in 2019, but the new interpretation will limit images of greens to a scale of 3/8 inch to 5 yards (1:480), and books can be no larger than 4 1/4 inches by 7 inches (pocket-sized).

The goal of the new interpretation was to end the use of the elaborate pages used by some players in recent years, but the concern is the new standard creates confusion with existing yardage books. On certain courses with smaller greens, like Pebble Beach, some current yardage books would fall outside of the ratio that is now allowed.

“Certain players, like Luke Donald has charted every putt he’s ever hit [in his yardage book],” Casey said. “He’s done his homework there and shouldn’t get penalized for that.”

Along with the scheduled meetings this week and at the Sony Open, the Tour has also provided players with detailed explanations of the new rules and an oversized poster explaining the changes was posted in the locker room at Kapalua.

“I've tried to spend a lot of time looking over them,” Thomas said. “Especially a handful of them are quite a bit different and I think you'll see it across the field, especially these first couple months. Everybody's going to be calling a rules official in as much possible. So, unfortunately, play is probably not going to be too fast.”

Eventually, however, most players were confident the new rules would become the norm. But until then, don’t expect the transition to be easy or quick.