Ditch some of golf’s ar­cane rules? It’s about time.

The Washington Post Sunday - - HOCKEY - thomas.boswell@wash­post.com For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/boswell.

Golf has been in de­cline for at least a decade. Al­most ev­ery graph is down. There are not enough new young play­ers, and too many cur­rent play­ers quit. The game is of­ten too slow, ex­pen­sive, white, male, elit­ist, stuffy and full of an­ti­quated rules. Among pros, no­body right now is Tiger, Jack or Arnie yet.

The game may even be too hard in prac­tice, dis­ci­pline and hon­esty to suit the age. Too much de­ferred, not enough grat­i­fied. Walk miles, carry a bag, hold your tem­per, and you don’t even get to zap aliens while gulp­ing junk food. Lousy game.

Even the en­vi­ron­ment it­self some­times dis­likes the wa­ter­greedy game. If you count in gen­er­a­tions, golf may ex­pire be­fore it adapts. But that’s all old news. This is a good news day: For the first time since 1744, they’ve changed the darn rules!

The trans­for­ma­tion is rad­i­cal, won­der­ful and what mil­lions of us, play­ing for two bucks and pick­ing up af­ter we reached “quad,” have been do­ing all our lives.

Golf is hard enough with­out some 15th cen­tury shep­herd de­cid­ing that it’s a two-stroke mor­tal-sin penalty if your putt hits the flag­stick while it’s in the cup. Or if your ball moves a hun­dredth of an inch as you ad­dress it, vis­i­ble on slow-mo­tion re­play, as hap­pened in both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens last year. Dustin John­son sur­vived his ker­fuf­fle; Anna Nordqvist lost a ti­tle.

On Wed­nes­day, the USGA and Royal & An­cient re­leased the re­sult of their five years of study, bless ’em. They came up with sug­ges­tions, to be dis­cussed through­out golf for the next two years, that al­most ev­ery man or woman, pub­lic course or pri­vate, that I’ve played with reg­u­larly has al­ready dis­cussed or em­ployed all their lives.

Once, I went 36 holes with Roger Cle­mens and Andy Pet­titte of the Yan­kees. Darn, I said, so you guys play by com­mon sense, too — not strict Rules of Golf.

It’s as if the rest of us had three open holes be­hind us but the folks who run golf had to get scared of fall­ing prof­its, pop­u­lar­ity and rat­ings be­fore they de­cided to catch up. So, once ev­ery 273 years, they’re “in place.”

You’re not go­ing to be­lieve what the rul­ing bod­ies now en­dorse! Ac­tu­ally, you will. Half of it you al­ready do. The other half you wish you could. Soon, we all can — and with­out telling each other, “Sh­hhh, don’t tell any­one we play that way.”

Hit when you’re ready, not just when you’re “away.”

Don’t search for that stupid ball for five min­utes. Three is enough. Move on.

If some­one in your group doesn’t hit af­ter 40 sec­onds with clear fair­way in front of them, say, “While we’re young.”

Want to re­move a loose im­ped­i­ment in a bunker? Sure. They’re “loose” for a rea­son. Is some­thing mess­ing up the green on the line of your putt — spike marks, ball marks, what­ever? Well, fix it. You stoned it to six feet. You de­serve a smooth putt.

Who cares if you hit the flag­stick with a putt or ac­ci­den­tally ground your club in a bunker if you aren’t hit­ting a shot? Two-shot penal­ties, my foot.

If your drive em­beds in the soggy rough, pull it out; for the price you’re pay­ing to play, that ball should bounce. And if you ac­ci­den­tally move your ball while search­ing for it, that’s not a penalty — are we sup­posed to be psy­chic?

Ap­par­ently, I’ve been ahead of the times for decades. I thought I was just beg­ging my friends to un­der­stand and for­give me. When I took a drop on a hill, I didn’t hold my arm out at shoul­der height like a dope and drop the ball twice to prove that grav­ity still works (while my ball rolled down a gulch). I held it an inch above the ground and kind of “drop-placed” it. Now, that’s the new rule.

Most im­por­tant, I haven’t counted all my strokes. I’ve played in very few groups that do; we sel­dom take more than a quadru­ple bo­gey. Right up un­til that putt for triple, grind it out. Af­ter that, pick up — not out of pity for your­self but out of mercy for ev­ery­one else be­hind you on the course. The new rules say: De­fine a max score — twice par, triple par, what­ever — and don’t keep beat­ing the poor ball af­ter you reach it.

(Ex­cep­tion: The only time I ever played Pine Val­ley, the hard­est course in the world, we all de­cided we would count ev­ery stroke. So, I asked the cad­die to read my putt for a 10. He said, po­litely, “Sir, I don’t line ’em up for dou­ble dig­its.”)

All golfers wail at the game’s gods. But now we’re ac­tu­ally get­ting di­vine an­swers. When you hit the ball into jun­gle or lava, why are you ex­pected to go in af­ter it? Why not just let us play it like a wa­ter haz­ard? Now, or soon, we can.

Why should we ever have to hit a ball across the same wa­ter twice? Why shouldn’t all cour­ses, when pos­si­ble, be al­lowed to treat all wa­ter as “lat­eral.” Just let us drop be­side the wa­ter, not be­hind it again. That change is sug­gested, too.

Why can’t we ground our clubs in haz­ards if we aren’t try­ing to cheat by “test­ing the con­di­tions” and we aren’t at­tempt­ing a shot? That’s as in­sane as get­ting a twoshot penalty be­cause you point at your tar­get line on the green and ac­ci­den­tally touch the grass. Both have been penal­ties since 1744, but not now.

I may have mis­stated some wrin­kles in th­ese new rules. I wasn’t much good on the old ones. I’ve loved the game all my life, but the 97 pages of ba­sic Rules, plus 457 more pages of “De­ci­sions on the Rules of Golf ” — no, not so much, per­son­ally.

To me, th­ese be­lated rules are fab­u­lous. Tour pros who think it’s all about them, not the health of golf, may com­plain. So might Old­est Mem­bers, who also know the cod­i­cils in their home­own­ers as­so­ci­a­tion by­laws. Let’s steam­roll ’em.

Golf has tough is­sues, some out­side its con­trol. But this one’s right in its grip. The game is hard enough. And its honor code adds a sec­ond layer of dis­ci­pline and dif­fi­culty. That’s good. But in­com­pre­hen­si­ble and un­nec­es­sary rules are not.

I don’t know what to do first: ground my club in a bunker or hit the flag­stick with a putt? And not get a penalty. New rules — let’s flaunt ’em. Why, it’s al­most enough, on a win­ter day, to make you want to go out and . . . play golf.

Thomas Boswell

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