USGA, R&A propose sweeping overhaul of golf rules for 2019

The U.S. Golf Association and the R&A today proposed the most sweeping overhaul of the Rules of Golf in decades, perhaps ever.

In detailed draft documents released today, golf’s governing bodies proposed reducing the number of rules to 24 from 34 and eliminating or modifying penalties on some three dozen categories of rulings.

The breadth of the proposal is startling. It covers, among other things: accidental movement of balls on greens; where and how to take relief; application of red penalty areas to non-water hazards; repair of damaged greens, including spike marks; approval of distance-measuring devices; elimination of penalties for accidental touching of loose impediments in bunkers and penalty areas; the outlawing of caddies assisting in alignment; a greater emphasis on player integrity in administering rulings; and the promotion of measures to speed pace of play.

Moreover, the proposals come with a guarantee: The rules will be written in clear, concise language, with bullet points. The USGA and R&A even released a proposed “Player’s Edition” – sort of a CliffsNotes version of the rules where golfers can quickly find an answer to a rules question.

The USGA is supporting the initiative with a website ( that will include short videos explaining the proposed changes.

Taken as a whole, it is an extraordinary moment in golf – something akin to an IRS commissioner saying: We need to simplify the tax code, and here’s how to do it. The USGA and R&A had a come-to-Jesus realization that the rules had become so complicated they teetered on the brink of becoming irrelevant to the vast majority of golfers.

“The overriding theme is that we were hearing from golfers at all levels that the rules were just complex, they were hard to understand. . .” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status. “We are listening. The rules have become dense and, for many, too confusing.”

Indeed, in collateral documents released with the rules proposals, the USGA and R&A took to heart concerns from average golfers that the rules “can be intimidating or off-putting” and that resolutions sometimes “are not straightforward or intuitive and their philosophy and approach can seem unclear.” The governing bodies acknowledged that the situation was exacerbated by the “Decisions on the Rules of Golf,” the latest version of which spans some 752 mind-numbing pages.

The proposals released today are the result of a process that began with an April 2012 meeting between the USGA, R&A, PGA Tour and European Tour. Pagel said he was convinced from the outset that the organizations could agree on such a comprehensive transformation of the rules “because of the buy-in we had from Day 1.”

“Everybody in that room was fully on board and supportive of where we were going,” Pagel said.

The proposed changes reflect both high-profile rules decisions and also the thousands of rules queries the USGA and R&A receive annually.

In 2016 the USGA’s two biggest championships ended in turmoil because of rulings that were widely criticized. In June, U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson belatedly was penalized a shot because his ball accidentally moved on the fifth green. It didn’t impact the outcome, but it left a black mark on the USGA’s biggest championship. The USGA announced last year that, starting Jan. 1, a local rule would eliminate that penalty.

“Our announcing that as a local rule as opposed to waiting for this preview period was a recognition that we didn’t like the outcome (at the U.S. Open),” Pagel said.

Today’s suggested changes also reflect an embrace of modernity that is at odds with the perception that the governing bodies are too set in their ways.

Pagel, for example, noted that distance-measuring devices have become so popular so quickly that the governing bodies decided not to fight the trend, instead approving use of the devices and leaving it to tournament organizers to outlaw them if they so choose.

One of the most striking changes we’ll see, should these proposals be approved, is how drops are executed when taking relief. Currently, players drop the ball from shoulder height.

“However, the complexities come in when that ball hits the ground and it can go anywhere,” Pagel said. “There are nine times under the current rules where you have to drop again. And if it does one of those nine things again, then you have to go in and place it.”

So the new rules propose allowing drops from any height, including just above the grass line. The goal is to get the ball back in play in the proper area and keep play moving.

“Trust me: I’ve tested this: A ball will settle down in the rough even if you drop it from just above the grass,” Pagel said.

The proposals also aim to improve pace of play by promoting ready golf, recommending that shots be played in no more than 40 second, and even allowing players to putt with the flagstick in the hole. There also is a proposal to limit lost-ball searches to three minutes, down from five; in a related move, Pagel noted, no penalty would be assessed if balls are moved during searches. The thinking is that that will promote faster, more aggressive searches.

The proposed rules also give greater weight to player integrity – for example, when a player needs to lift his ball to identify it or choose the proper drop point when a ball is in a hazard. Pagel said these changes were included in response to video evidence that crops up after the fact.

“If a player is operating under a rule, the player is doing everything reasonable to put their ball back into play or take relief, and does something just slightly wrong . . . there’s no reason for the rules to step in and second-guess them later,” Pagel said.

There will be a six-month comment period; golfers can contact the governing bodies directly or weigh in on social media (#GolfRules2019). Final rules will be drafted by March 1 and go into effect Jan. 1, 2019.