Golf: R&A and USGA propose significant rule changes

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Will 2019 proposed rule changes shake up golf?

Proposals have been unveiled for the biggest shake-up of the rules of golf "in a generation".

If the Royal and Ancient and United States Golf Association plans are adopted, golfers will see significant shifts in how the sport is played.

The two governing bodies want to make golf quicker and played under more simple, consistent and fair rules.

Their ideas have been made public for a period of consultation and are scheduled to be implemented from 2019.

The new rulebook will be drawn up in "a modern, plain style" that will be written from a "player's perspective".

Among the changes under consideration are plans to:

  • Remove any penalty for accidentally moving your ball.
  • Relax the protocols for taking free or penalty drops, with the ball dropped from only an inch above the ground, rather than shoulder height.
  • Use fixed distances (20 or 80 inches) rather than club lengths to measure areas where a ball should be dropped.
  • Reduce the time allowed to search for a lost ball from five to three minutes.
  • Allow putting on the green with the flagstick left in the hole.
  • Allow players to repair spike marks and animal damage on greens.
  • Automatically allow the use of distance measuring devices.
  • Ban caddies from lining up players as they prepare to hit.
  • Recommend no player takes more than 40 seconds to hit a shot.
  • Encourage players in strokeplay to implement "ready golf" rather than waiting until it is their turn to hit.
  • Empower committees to set a maximum score for a hole (such as double par or triple bogey) to allow a player to pick up and move to the next hole.

The proposals follow four years of detailed examination of the current set-up by officials from the R&A and USGA, as well as professional tours.

The game is governed by a rulebook that contains hundreds of regulations and sub-rules. There is also a 500-page 'Decisions book' filled with precedents and "hidden rules" dealing with the myriad eventualities that can be occur during a game of golf.

David Rickman R and A Executive Director of Goverance
David Rickman (left) with Peter Dawson explaining the banning of anchored strokes at Wentworth in 2013

"This is the biggest set of changes in a generation," David Rickman, R&A executive director of governance, told BBC Sport.

"In recent history we had big changes in 1952 and then again in 1984 so we have done this sort of thing before.

"It seems in that in the 30-odd-year range we need to step back and think on a broader perspective and bring the rules up to date."

Rickman says the rulebook is difficult to understand and accepts that players need to be something of a "golfing lawyer" to understand them.

"I think that is a justifiable criticism," he said. "I think the rulebook is very cleverly constructed - perhaps I would say that - I've been doing this a while.

"But if it is not readily understandable to golfers then we've failed.

"We've ended up with a technical and complicated code, and that's not what we want, particularly as golf is largely self-regulating.

"So we needed to reduce that complexity and one of the ways we can do that is by putting a greater emphasis on player integrity.

"Golfers are expected to abide by the rules and by following through on all respects of that we can set the rules more simply and give greater guidance and make the game better to play."

Golf spikes
Under the rule changes, players could be allowed to repair spike marks on putting greens

The working party examined every regulation in the book before drawing up its proposals. "We've not been afraid to consider fundamental change," Rickman added.

Proposals on repairing spike marks and allowing the choice of leaving the flag in the hole for putts on the green would appear to fall into that category.

"Actually that one harks back to a rule that existed in the 1960s," Rickman said. "So as part of this extensive effort we have looked at the history of the rules."

Perhaps the most contentious proposal surrounds how penalty or free drops will be executed. The plan to abolish releasing the ball from shoulder height will cause many an eyebrow to be raised.

"I suspect this will be an area of the rules that we will talk about for sometime," Rickman said. "We really want to get the ball back into play more quickly and we wanted to move away from a procedural situation."

Hence allowing a drop from just an inch off the ground.

The entire package is aimed at speeding up the game and banning caddies from lining up players ahead of shots would surely help, especially on women's tours where this is common practice.

Now the proposals have been published there will be a six-month period when all golfers can provide their feedback.

Thereafter the new rulebook will be drawn up ready for implementation at the start of 2019.

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