The new rules

The R&A’S David Rick­man tells us how – and why – they’ve changed


Why the rad­i­cal revamp has been done, and how it will af­fect you.

It’s of­fi­cial! Golf’s new rules have been rat­i­fied and pub­lished by the R&A and USGA, which means you’ve now got three months to get your head around 24 rules and 300 in­ter­pre­ta­tions. For the first time ever, a print and dig­i­tal copy of the Player’s Edi­tion has been in­tro­duced as a shorter, more user-friendly ver­sion of the rules and will serve as the pri­mary pub­li­ca­tion for all golfers.

Of course, ev­ery rules anorak can still get lost in the in­tri­ca­cies of the full Rules of Golf book, which has been up­dated and sits along­side the Mod­i­fied Rules of Golf for Play­ers with Dis­abil­i­ties. But why bother when ev­ery­thing is laid out in easy-to-fol­low di­a­grams, charts and 10 topi­cal group­ings in the Player’s Edi­tion? What­ever your pref­er­ence, ev­ery pub­li­ca­tion – in­clud­ing a new Of­fi­cial Guide to the Rules of Golf – is now avail­able to ac­cess via the R&A web­site and app, so there’s no ex­cuse for not get­ting hold of your copy be­fore Jan­uary 1, 2019.

To help you pre­pare, we spoke ex­clu­sively to David Rick­man, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor – Gov­er­nance at The R&A, to get the low­down on what golf’s big­gest rules change in more than 60 years means for you…

What was the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind such a dras­tic rules change? Was it sim­ply down to the cur­rent list be­ing too com­plex?

I think that’s a fair sum­mary. When we look back at the his­tory of golf, we haven’t had a re­view of this kind since 1952. Over the pas­sage of time, we tend to add layer upon layer to the rules and the con­se­quence of re­vi­sions is that they be­come more com­pli­cated. At times you need to take a step back and that’s what we’ve done over the last six years. This hasn’t been about turn­ing golf into a dif­fer­ent form. We’ve re­mained faith­ful to the im­por­tant fun­da­men­tals, but at the same time we recog­nised that there are tech­ni­cal penal­ties that we can re­move, com­plex sit­u­a­tions that we can sim­plify and out­comes we can im­prove. There­fore, the main work has been to make changes where we can, sim­plify and mod­ernise where we can, and then fo­cus on how the rules are pre­sented and writ­ten. Ul­ti­mately, golf is a self-reg­u­lat­ing game so we do need mil­lions of our play­ers to un­der­stand the rules as best they can. It’s our job to help them.

Why now?

It all dates back to April 2012, so the new rules have been some time in com­ing. One of the con­trib­u­tory fac­tors was that golf was about to be ad­mit­ted into the Olympics and that brings a new au­di­ence to our sport. There was also a re­al­i­sa­tion that the rules had be­come in­tim­i­dat­ing and needed to be sim­pli­fied. Ev­ery 30 years or so, we’ve un­der­taken a sim­i­lar re­view and we were aware that we had added con­sid­er­able com­plex­ity to the rules, as ev­i­denced by a de­ci­sions book which to­day con­tains up to 1,200 num­bers. As part of this process, we’ve not just re­duced the 34 rules to 24, but also changed the 1,200 de­ci­sions to 300 in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

How much work has gone into re­vis­ing the rules?

In my 30 years work­ing at The R&A, this has been the big­gest project that we’ve un­der­taken. It’s been a hugely time con­sum­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort, in­volv­ing not just our­selves but the USGA, the pro­fes­sional tours and our Rules of Golf com­mit­tee, which in­cludes ad­vi­sory mem­bers from around the world. In the world of rules, this is about as ex­cit­ing as it gets. It’s all about mak­ing the rules more in­tu­itive. The an­swer, more of­ten than not, should co­in­cide with what a golfer thinks. While the rule num­bers have changed, a lot of the fun­da­men­tal philoso­phies have been left the same, but ex­plained more clearly. We think the rule book is now less in­tim­i­dat­ing and will help golfers un­der­stand why cer­tain rules are in place.

How can golfers brush up on all the changes?

We have re­leased quite a lot of this in­for­ma­tion al­ready, in par­tic­u­lar the full rules be­ing made pub­lic in March this year. What we are do­ing now is re­leas­ing the Player’s Edi­tion, which is some­thing new for us. We want to present the rules in a much sim­pler and easy to un­der­stand way. Our web­site is also live now and the app has also been up­dated, which we be­lieve is a ma­jor tool for all golfers go­ing for­ward. It in­cludes not just the Player’s Edi­tion, but also the Of­fi­cial Guide to the Rules of Golf which is aimed at ad­min­is­tra­tors, ref­er­ees and club com­mit­tees and lists all the in­ter­pre­ta­tions and pro­ce­dures. If peo­ple want a printed hard copy of the Of­fi­cial Guide, which comes out in Novem­ber, there will be a cost. But all the ma­te­rial will be avail­able on­line.

What fea­tures in the Player’s Edi­tion?

It’s still a full and proper rule­book. It’s not a

guide or a sum­mary. It gives you the de­tailed an­swers, but at the same time it de­lib­er­ately fo­cuses on the most com­monly-oc­cur­ring sit­u­a­tions. It’s writ­ten in a more di­rect way, talk­ing to you – the golfer – and it in­cludes il­lus­tra­tions and di­a­grams which, par­tic­u­larly around re­lief pro­ce­dures, make it abun­dantly clear what op­tions are avail­able.

How do you get hold of it?

Within the UK, we are print­ing 1.4 mil­lion copies of the rules and they are be­ing dis­trib­uted to all the golf clubs and so­ci­eties, and will be made free of charge. We will also be trans­lat­ing the book into more than 30 dif­fer­ent lan­guages, and th­ese will be avail­able in the com­ing months.

Just to clar­ify, are golfers able to check the rules on their phone dur­ing com­pe­ti­tion?

Very much so. On a num­ber of the pro­fes­sional tours, they do have player reg­u­la­tions around the use of elec­tronic de­vices, but for the rest of us there is no breach.

What has been the re­ac­tion to the changes?

In March 2017, we did re­veal the main body of work and ad­vised the golf­ing world to let us know what they thought. We had over 30,000 re­sponses from over 100 coun­tries and that was over­whelm­ing pos­i­tives. Around that time, I went to a Eu­ro­pean Tour event and spoke to a dozen or so prom­i­nent play­ers. They were all ex­tremely pos­i­tive about the changes be­ing pro­posed at that time.

Were there any com­mon queries from club golfers?

Quite a lot of peo­ple wanted re­lief from divot holes on the fair­way. I un­der­stand that re­quest and as a golfer my­self, it is pretty frus­trat­ing. But one of the great prin­ci­ples of our sport is “hit it, find it, hit it” so you play the ball as it lies. I think it’s im­por­tant we still hold strong to the val­ues of our sport. Over­all, though, we had no com­ments or sug­ges­tions that we hadn’t cov­ered in our dis­cus­sions be­fore­hand.

What do you con­sider the big­gest change?

The most vis­i­bly ob­vi­ous changes – and prob­a­bly the ones peo­ple will ex­pe­ri­ence pretty quickly – is the abil­ity to putt with the flag in and re­pair dam­age to your line of putt. The drop­ping pro­ce­dure is prob­a­bly just as note­wor­thy.

In the orig­i­nal pro­pos­als, a drop could be taken from any height. What was the rea­son­ing be­hind chang­ing the word­ing to knee height?

The drop­ping rule was prob­a­bly the first item on the agenda in the first meet­ing six years. It’s a chal­leng­ing el­e­ment and we did talk about mov­ing to “plac­ing” in its en­tirety. But par­tic­u­larly for re­lief sit­u­a­tions in the rough, we couldn’t get com­fort­able with a free-re­lief sit­u­a­tion in which a player could get the best pos­si­ble lie. Drop­ping from any height be­came an is­sue be­cause we thought some play­ers may try and drop very close to the min­i­mum. In the end, we con­cluded that the sim­plest way was to re­duce the height of the drop, from shoul­der to knee. Our sci­en­tists tell us that the ball is now trav­el­ling at half the ve­loc­ity, which

means that the ball is less likely to bounce and roll out of the re­lief area. That’s what we wanted. We want one drop from knee height and for the ball to stay in the re­lief area to prevent slow play.

How keen are you to stress that the al­ter­na­tive to stroke and dis­tance for a ball that is lost or out of bounds is ac­tu­ally a Lo­cal Rule?

That’s an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion. Pro­vid­ing op­tions are a good thing, but they can be­come com­pli­cated. There is some mis­un­der­stand­ing that in such cir­cum­stances, tak­ing a penalty drop is a rule. It’s not. It’s an op­tional Lo­cal Rule that a club can in­tro­duce when con­di­tions warrant it.

Why isn’t it an ac­tual rule?

It all goes back to how golf is meant to be a chal­lenge. A philo­soph­i­cal point to make is that if you fail the test pre­sented in front of you, you should take the test again. Take the Old Course at St An­drews. If the same Lo­cal Rule was in place on holes 16, 17 and 18, I would sug­gest that even with a two-stroke penalty it’s not quite the same chal­lenge. We there­fore have to be cau­tious about in­tro­duc­ing a rule which changes the fun­da­men­tals of the game.

Do you en­vis­age any teething prob­lems in Jan­uary?

I hope not. Com­pared with some of the changes Bri­tain is about to en­dure, I’m hop­ing the tran­si­tion to the 2019 Rules of Golf will be rel­a­tively straight­for­ward. From a purist point of view, this is a hard stop on De­cem­ber 31 and come Jan­uary 1 the new rules will be in play. The good news is that most changes re­late to re­mov­ing penal­ties or giv­ing


play­ers more op­tions. There are rel­a­tively few sit­u­a­tions in which some­one could get it wrong. The drop­ping rule is per­haps the most ob­vi­ous, but we are hop­ing that there will be a con­certed push – in the me­dia and at golf clubs – be­tween now and Jan­uary to help min­imise such sit­u­a­tions.

Is this it now, or will there be more changes?

It would be un­re­al­is­tic to think that the rules are now per­fect. I think they are very good now, but I’m sure we will have to con­tinue this work and things will evolve. Golfers will con­tinue to hit balls into some very strange places, and maybe that’s part of the at­trac­tion of this won­der­ful sport.

Do you en­vis­age a time when there are sep­a­rate rules for am­a­teurs and pros?

Golf cer­tainly has a long his­tory of play­ing by a sin­gle set of rules. Golf is one of those few sports where you can make a com­par­i­son against the very best. It would be fool­ish to rule any­thing out in terms of the fu­ture but I think if we were to make changes, we would have to be care­ful that we don’t re­duce the no­tion that we all play the same game. That re­mains a very spe­cial part of our sport.

If you had one mes­sage to club golfers who’ll be play­ing on Jan­uary 1, what would it be?

I’d en­cour­age all golfers to get hold of the Player’s Edi­tion, but also to down­load the app and visit the R&A web­site, where there are lots of videos and other ma­te­rial. We will have quizzes in the full­ness of time and be up­dat­ing our Rules Academy, so I’d en­cour­age ev­ery­one to take the op­por­tu­nity over the next three months to be­come more fa­mil­iar with the 2019 rules.

The R&A’S David Rick­man told us: “We think the rule book is now less in­tim­i­dat­ing and will help golfers un­der­stand why cer­tain rules are in place.”

The new Player’s Edi­tion con­tains di­a­grams and il­lus­tra­tions to help you make sense of and im­ple­ment the rules quickly and eas­ily. Th­ese are two sim­ple ex­am­ples...

1 Knee high drops No, you can’t squat – and when did your shoul­der be­come knee height? 1

2 Out of bounds There’s no ex­cuse for be­ing un­able to de­ter­mine whether a ball is in play or not. Just fol­low this... 2

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