The earliest known rules for golf were scribbled down in 1744. There were only 13 listed to govern the game, and they addressed such critical matters as horses, “wattery filth,” bones, and trenches dug for soldier’s lines (you get a free drop for that one). Those original 13 have morphed into a book of regulations so complicated that an official scorer accompanies each group in major tournaments.
Few professionals and hardly any recreational golfers have the Rules of Golf down cold. Even the simplest situations are often addressed in such dense language as to encourage confusion. Most of the widely known common regulations can handle the vast majority of play, but enough esoterica remains that the ruling bodies of golf, the Royal & Ancient and the United States Golf Association, need to meet regularly to review the game’s guidelines. Most often, these proclamations go unnoticed but this year’s decisions – there were four changes announced – have caused a greater ripple than usual across the golf world.
Prohibition on Anchoring the Club While Making a Stroke (Rule 14-1b)
The ban on anchor putting is the biggie attracting attention for 2016 and it’s been in the works for almost three years. The new rule doesn’t outlaw the long putters themselves, but if you like to use them you’re going to have to figure out some way to make your putting stroke without having the club anchored anywhere on your body. That applies to any club – long or short; clubs are legal, anchoring is not.
Withdrawal of Rule on Ball Moving After Address (Rule 18-2b)
This is not a rule change but a rule demolition. In the past, if a golfer addressed the ball and it moved for any reason without being touched by the club – a gust of wind, a tricky lie in the grass, whatever – a one stroke penalty was incurred. Since the movement might be imperceptible and seen only by the golfer his or herself, it was often incumbent on the player to self-assess the penalty.
Jack Nicklaus would famously never ground his club at address. While this technique has potential swing advantages, the main reason the Golden Bear developed the habit, was to avoid the possibility of a penalty stroke if the golf ball moved inadvertently. A club must be soled for the ball to be considered “addressed.” All that is gone now with the elimination of a rule most golfers have long considered unfair.
Limited Exception to Disqualification Penalty for Submission of Incorrect Score Card (Rule 6-6d)
Speaking of fair, it’s happened more than once that a touring pro was done with his round and back in the hotel when he discovered that he was hit retroactively with a penalty for an infraction during play that day — sometimes as the result of a television viewer calling in about something caught on camera. Since the scorecard was already signed and the penalty added afterwards, that official scorecard becomes incorrect to the player’s favor, meaning the player could start packing his bags because he was disqualified and out of the tournament. Now when the authorities asses penalties without the player’s knowledge, it’s only a two-stroke infraction and participation in the tournament can continue. Fair is fair.
Modification of Penalty for a Single Impermissible Use of Artificial Devices or Equipment (Rule 14-3)
Here’s a rule golfers weren’t too worried about in 1744, and amateurs shouldn’t worry about it now as it affects only tournament players. When a player uses a rangefinder or any golf gizmo not approved for tournament play, the penalty used to be disqualification. Now that too has been whittled down to two strokes or loss of hole in match play. That is for a first offense. Try it again and things may not go so smoothly.
Only time will tell if these new rule changes will end up being significant in the near future and take time for golfers to adjust to or simply more fine print buried in a book. But you can bet that officials will be keeping these top of mind during the 2016 season.