Golf: R&A moves to simplify game’s rules

GOLF’S rules-makers are trying to make disqualification a last resort in the latest changes aimed at simplifying the sport’s regulations.

Matt Kuchars unorthodox action is allowed under the rules governing long putters. Picture: Getty
Matt Kuchars unorthodox action is allowed under the rules governing long putters. Picture: Getty
Matt Kuchars unorthodox action is allowed under the rules governing long putters. Picture: Getty

As part of a four-yearly review of the Rules of Golf, two of the alterations introduce “proportional penalties” after it was felt some cases of players being turfed out of events had been unfair. In a joint-agreement between the R&A and the USGA, the penalty for a one-off use of artificial devices or abnormal equipment has been reduced from disqualification to loss of the hole in match play or two strokes in stroke play.

The sport’s two governing bodies have also agreed that a player should no longer be forced out of an event for returning a lower score for a hole if they were unaware that a breach of the rules had occurred.

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“That is a fair observation,” said David Rickman, the R&A’s director of Rules and Equipment, in reply to being asked if a conscious effort is being made to see disqualifications occurring as little as possible. “We are trying to establish proportional penalties without disqualifying them.”

Chris Doak was disqualified from the first round of the Roma Open on the Challenge Tour in 2010 for using a GPS measuring device. He said it was because he was used to using one on the Tartan Tour and realised his mistake pretty soon.

Julie Inkster was disqualified from an event in the United States in 2010 for putting a “weighted donut” on the end of her club. That was judged to be an artificial device, as was a spongy green ball that led to D A Points being similarly disqualified early last year after he’d placed it under his right arm to make some practice swings during a long wait in an event at Pebble Beach.

“Under the last set of rules, all these instances would have been a straight disqualification, but we now feel that for a one-off breach a two-shot penalty is sufficient,” said Rickman of one of 18 changes in the 34 regulations that govern the game.

Among those to fall foul of a wrong score being submitted without knowing he’d broken the rules is Camilo Villegas. Playing in the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions in 2011, he played a shot from the bottom of a slope that didn’t get to the top and, as it was rolling back, he flicked away the divot from the first shot and, in doing so, effectively moved a “loose impediment” in a reflex action.

It was reported overnight by a viewer and so the penalty of disqualification applied.

“Now he’d incur an underlying penalty of two shots and an additional two for the scorecard error,” explained Rickman of that change. “But at least he would still be playing golf in that event.”

While it had already been looked at in the last set of changes – it followed Padraig Harrington being hit with a penalty in the second round of the 2009 Masters when a gust of wind was clearly the cause – a further tweak has been made to the rule concerning a ball moving after a player has addressed it.

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“This one has evolved over time,” said Rickman. “We tried to address that in the 2012 changes, but the solution was not really complete, so we’ve simplified it. Now it will be like any other case of a ball moving, ie it will be based on facts like the wind. We feel this extra step completes the work on this rule.”

Effective from 1 January next year, the new set of rules also include the ban on anchoring, which was announced in May 2013 to give players plenty of time to prepare for that coming in.

“We are very conscious that we are taking a method or stroke away – something we are not doing lightly – so that’s why we announced this proposal more than two years in advance,” said Rickman. “There still seems to be some confusion that we are banning belly or long putters when we are not. We will be putting out a video as clarification as we have a pretty tight definition of anchoring and Matt Kuchar’s method [whereby the club lies up his left arm] is fine.”

Most players, including Adam Scott and Ernie Els, have either switched to a short putter or tested one out, but Bernhard Langer, who has won a host of titles using an anchored stroke, has still to make the switch. “I don’t believe that Bernhard Langer has been in touch directly, but, from what I have read, he is still not very happy about it. He may be waiting to deal with it when he has to,” said Rickman.

First drawn up in 1774, when there were only 13, the next set of changes could tackle players being lined up by their caddies and might even be part of a complete rewrite of the rule book. “The plan is to completely rewrite the rules to some degree, and that will be an interesting challenge,” said Rickman, having revealed that the process now involves 130 national bodies around the world. “We’ve not set a timetable for that because we have to get it right and the 2016 Rules are going to be translated into 36 different languages and try reading them in Cambodian.

“Golf, of course, is a self-regulated game, but the onus is on us to continue to make the rules as simple as possible and also so that golfers instinctively think the decision in their head is the right one.

“I think time constraints and money will have a more important effect on participation going forward but, if simplifying the rules plays a small part in that, then that’s what we need to do.”