The Royal & Ancient, which governs the Rules of Golf in conjunction with the USPGA, publishes annual amendments to the rules by which the game is played across the world. For all the criticism golf receives for being anchored in the past, these amendments make the game fair and keep it in sync with the times. The R&A isn’t shy of revisiting existing rules that are deemed patently unfair.
In 2023, the amendments include two long-awaited exceptions that illustrate this point. No, you still can’t get away with signing an incorrect scorecard — the penalty for that carelessness remains disqualification, irrespective of what’s at stake. But a great example of the R&A’s discernment when making exceptions to a rule is the one pertaining to replacing a damaged club.
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Until last year, that wasn’t allowed. Now it didn’t matter whether you snapped your putter in two out of sheer frustration, or if a club caught a root or struck a stone and got damaged. The rules stated that the player would have to finish a round with the 13 clubs remaining in his bag. The 2023 amendments to the rules allow for the replacement of a club that has been ‘accidentally’ damaged and “provided the player did not damage it through abuse”. The emphasis is on the lack of intent by the player to inflict damage. So the Rule stands in case you deliberately destroy a club, but you’re allowed to get a replacement if it was no fault of yours.
Another excellent amendment to come in 2023 is one that allows a player to replace a ball that’s been dropped by the player in a penalty area. At the 2019 Phoenix Open PGA Tour, Rickie Fowler chipped his ball off green and into a water hazard. Fowler took his drop at an appropriate location but the ball rolled back into the penalty area and he was assessed a one-shot penalty. That ruling seemed cruel since Fowler had no control over the ball’s motion. Now the amendments state that: “a new exception provides that a ball at rest must be replaced if it moves to another area of the course or comes to rest out of bounds after being dropped, placed, or replaced”.
Another amendment that amateurs need to be aware of is about taking ‘unplayable drops.’ Until now the procedure was to draw a line from the hole through the original spot of your ball and take a drop as far back on that line as you desire. This year the rules give a bit more leeway to the players when it pertains to the actual drop in this type of relief. Now the ball can come to rest within one club-length of where it is dropped. That means that one club-length closer to the hole is completely acceptable.
What the 2023 amendments haven’t addressed — something that many people were hoping to see — is putting curbs on the ever-increasing distances that people are hitting it off the tee. The rationale to do so requires little elaboration: you don’t even have to look at an outlier like Bryson de Chambeau, who regularly hits precision drives that go over 400 yards — a large number of players average well over 300 yards.
Traditionally, power has been important: length off the tee has always given the long-hitters an advantage. But back in the day that was tempered by the inherent need for finesse around the greens, and rewards for precision.
But modern golf stars are very different from, say a yesteryears star like Seve Ballesteros who could barely hit a straight drive and yet excelled in creative escapes and imaginative shotmaking. Ballesteros, who famously remarked that ‘my hands are my computer,’ while dismissing modern tech, made the game ‘fun’ to watch. In the modern age, Tiger Woods is possibly the only modern golfer who is as imaginative and creative as he is powerful. The majority of the current stars of the game, are ‘bomb and gouge,’ artistes — hitting it as long as they can and then wedging it close to the pin.
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Watching their favourite players, we amateurs become equally biased in our focus towards hitting the long ball. Something not lost on equipment companies that release bigger and more forgiving drivers every year in a ploy to bait weekend golfers on a quest for bigger and more booming drives. The fact that the ten-yard greenside bunker shot, or approach, counts as much as that 250-yard drive off the tee is conveniently ignored. If all you’re seeing on television are pros bombing it 300 yards and hitting wedges into 500-yard par-4s then it’s unlikely that you’ll be motivated to work on a deft touch around the greens. Who wants to spend hours in a bunker practicing shots, or little chips off the green when you can tee it up and go all ape on the ball? Would you rather have a fun day with the driver and not such a great score? Or, would you rather not hit any blinding drives but walk off with a decent score? That is not a trick question. I know, exactly what I’d choose. And I’m as susceptible to the vanity of the long ball as the rest of us.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game