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Storylines of the Year, No. 5: Rules neither simple nor satisfactory

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GolfChannel.com is counting down the top storylines of 2019. Here's a look at Nos. 10-6 and those that just missed the cut. At No. 5 on our list is how the "simplified" Rules of Golf were neither simple, nor were they satisfactory.

 

WHY IT MATTERED

This was the year that the Rules of Golf were supposed to be simplified. It became the year that the rules, and the game’s rules makers, became reactionary.

There was a great deal of interest as to how the new abiding principles were going to play out in 2019, as well as intrigue as to how players at the professional level would accept them.

Had things gone swimmingly, this would have been an honorable mention storyline, at best, this year. But when does anything involving the Rules of Golf go smoothly?

Controversy started immediately and never seemed to let up, and touched on any number of issues. Some were routine, the kinds of infractions you see every season. Some were more unusual, like Lee Ann Walker’s 58 penalty strokes or Trey Bilardello being disqualified from U.S. Open qualifying after shooting 202, or the backstopping debate.

But what made rules such a big storyline this year was the implementation and reaction to something that was designed to clean up past messes. Instead, the USGA and R&A, as well as the PGA and European tours, spent the year dealing with the fallout, making in-season concessions and promising alterations.

Whenever the spotlight shines on the Rules of Golf, it provides a harsh glare and the rules couldn’t escape it in 2019.

 

HOW IT PLAYED OUT

The year began with an overhaul of the rules that was focused on simplification and common sense. The makeover included, among other things, changes to how a player takes a drop and an adjustment that made it legal to putt with the flagstick in the hole.

Although the simplified rules would become the new normal by the end of the year, there were growing pains. Rickie Fowler was penalized a shot for violating the knee-high drop rule in February at the WGC-Mexico Championship and mocked the new rule with his unique interpretation of “knee-high” the next month at the Honda Classic.

It also took some time for players to adjust to putting with the flagstick in the hole and many players, including Bryson DeChambeau and Adam Scott, embraced the new rule as a competitive aid, prompting some to question if that was the rule maker’s intent.

The rule makers also had to clarify a new rule regarding caddie alignment of a player following a pair of high-profile and confusing incidents involving Haotong Li in Dubai and Denny McCarthy in Scottsdale, Ariz. McCarthy’s penalty was later rescinded following criticism of the new rule and push back from the PGA Tour.

But then, cause-and-effect was a common them in ’19. Nowhere was this more evident than in July when the R&A tested individual player drivers for the second consecutive year. The difference at Royal Portrush was that it was revealed that Xander Schauffele’s driver had failed the CT (characteristic time) test. Schauffele later criticized the testing process and the lack of confidentiality, as well as the limited and random sampling of those who were tested (30 players).

The Tour responded in September with a more comprehensive driver testing program that began with the 2019-20 season and focuses more on the concept of “creep,” which is the wearing process that gradually makes all drivers non-conforming. The new testing process also places the responsibility to maintain a conforming club on manufacturers more than the players.

The Tour – after the European Tour had already announced changes to combat slow play – reacted in similar fashion when pace of play, a common and complicated issue for the circuit, became a flashpoint during the playoffs.

A clip of DeChambeau taking more than two minutes to hit a putt during The Northern Trust went viral and the mounting criticism prompted the Tour to announce an ongoing effort to address pace of play using the data generated by ShotLink to help identify specific players and problem areas.

Last month the Tour announced “a number of modifications” to the pace-of-play policy for next year, although no specifics have been given and the changes won’t start until the spring.

It was an apropos end to an eventful year for players and officials that saw golf’s rule makers become much more reactionary.

 

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