The USGA and R&A are putting the finishing touches on a long overdue overhaul of golf’s most revered script

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New Delhi | Published: February 12, 2017 6:39:23 AM

The trouble with this utopian ideal—and I won’t digress into unfair play or deliberate cheating since that’s a completely different matter—is that the rules are voluminous and not the easiest to interpret.

Phil Mickelson having a long-drawn discussion with a rules official at last year’s British Open. Even pros need help in interpreting and applying the ‘Rules of Golf’Phil Mickelson having a long-drawn discussion with a rules official at last year’s British Open. Even pros need help in interpreting and applying the ‘Rules of Golf’

This is a very touchy subject. Trust me, I know: a discussion at the family dinner table last night got rather uncomfortable when my father declared that all golfers who question the ‘Rules of Golf’ have not been nurtured in the long-standing traditions of the game—in his eyes, and I dare say, a number of players of his generation that puts these players in the same category as those who can’t count their own score; those who will not call a penalty on to themselves; those who will cheer at an opponents’ missed putt… you get the idea.

“You’re not playing golf if you’re not playing by the rules” goes the familiar adage and I have no argument with that. The Rules of Golf, as laid down by the Royal & Ancient (that apply to the entire golfing world except the US) and the USGA, are the bedrock on which the game is founded upon. Players are expected to be cognizant of the rules—which most amateurs and pros are to varying degrees—and abide by them to the best of their abilities. Tacit in this is the fact that in the true traditions of the game the gentleman and lady golfer will enforce these rules on themselves. That’s the honourable thing to do and that’s what is expected of every golfer. I love that aspect of the game and it is what truly separates golf from other sports.

The trouble with this utopian ideal—and I won’t digress into unfair play or deliberate cheating since that’s a completely different matter—is that the rules are voluminous and not the easiest to interpret. Ergo, the necessity of rules officials and marshals on the course; even professionals need to consult a rules professional when they find themselves in a situation during tournament play. They would rather get an official ruling and proceed instead of making the call themselves and get penalised in the process. That’s my first issue with the rules—they can be so detailed that understanding and implementing them in play requires hours, if not days of study.

That makes them, in a sense, inaccessible and undesirable to all but the most motivated player. And I must add, a motivated player who has the time to understand, ingest and apply them.

So how can you play by the rules if just getting to know them beyond the basics is such a demanding exercise?

Secondly, there’s a universal belief amongst purists that the rules are inviolable—like they were a religious treatise dictated from heaven that must not be questioned and, more crucially, apply to all golfers. In fairness, both the R&A and the USGA have annual reviews during which the rules are amended, but nothing radical has ever been affected. My issue is that golf, unlike other sports, is an incredibly difficult game. The level of play that the pros are at is almost a different sport; by inference, rules that are enacted specifically for them ought not to be enforced on hapless amateurs. A good illustration of this is the rolling back of the U-grooves a couple of years back. Now, this came about because it was observed that these grooves enabled the pros to get lot of spin even from the rough. With that, the bomb and gouge players had a field day with no penalty for errant drives. The rollback, in my opinion, was a great idea and has restored some sanity to the pro game—golf has never been, and shouldn’t be, about brute strength.

However, I don’t know any amateur who can pull the ball back. At the most, you’ll get it to stop or spin a bit from the sand. For nine out of 10 amateurs, pulling the ball back is one of those holy grails that they’ll never get to experience. The outlawed grooves gave most of us a much better chance of being able to impart spin on the ball. Why would anyone want to rob us of that? Golf really doesn’t need to be harder than it is.

And it appears that a change is in the offing: in March, the first draft of a comprehensive overhaul of the rules, brought about by the R&A in conjunction with the USGA, is expected to be released. Five years in the making, the restructuring promises to be worth the wait. “It doesn’t fundamentally change how you think golf is played,” said USGA executive director Mike Davis recently. “What it does is fundamentally change the understanding of the rules, why they are the way they are, and how they’ll be communicated.”

Media reports in February reported that officials at the European Tour were discussing potential changes with members of the tour. Among the rules discussed were how players dropped a ball when taking relief, eliminating club length as a measurement for taking relief, decreasing the time players can search for a lost ball from five to three minutes, allowing players to repair marks left by shoe spikes on greens and altering the emphasis on yellow and red stakes for water hazards.

According to John Bodenhamer, USGA senior managing director, rules, competitions and equipment standards, “Nothing was sacred. Everything was on the table.” The rollout for the newly proposed rules is expected in March and a six-month period during which the USGA and R&A will solicit feedback from the golf community will ensue.The language will be finalised later this year or early 2018. Importantly, the bodies have taken note of the fact that the rules are hard to comprehend and aim to include visuals—photos, images and even video—to help clarify them.

In a welcome sign of embracing the times, Davis stressed on the need for technology to help update and deliver the rules in the 21st century. “How come we can’t have an instance where someone can (take their phone and) say, ‘Siri, I hit my ball into a water hazard. What are my options?’”

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