It was my first day of school in seven and a half years. I parked my car, slung my backpack over my shoulder and walked up the hill into an impressive, well-lit building and down halls lined by framed paintings to a spacious classroom.
A few minutes after 9 a.m., professor Joey Latowski of the Florida State Golf Association, along with host head pro/T.A. Scott Davis, called class into session at the Club at Ibis in West Palm Beach, FL.
The syllabus: 24 lessons, one for each of the newly, heavily revised Rules of Golf (down from 34). It was to be a busy day with plenty of pedantry. The free coffee setup was well stocked. I was wondering when the adrenaline of being back in a classroom environment (I actually enjoyed school, for the most part) would wear off.
Among approximately three dozen attendees, I was probably the only person in the room under 30 years old. Still, the crowd was not quite as old as I expected. There were, of course, plenty of retirees, for whom regular golf games around the club are a main life activity. The timing of the seminar – a weekday, from 9 a.m. to about 4 p.m. – was not exactly conducive to bringing out younger golfers, either.
That said, there was a strong cadre of area head and assistant pros, for whom attendance at seminars like this one confers PGA of America education credits. Pros came up from Boca Raton and Pembroke Lakes and down from Stuart and Jupiter for a bit of re-training on the many Rules situations that are likely to come up during tournaments among their memberships and visitors. After all, the Rules Official hat may be the heaviest one a club pro must wear.
The most over-represented group in the room relative to their share of the golfing population: ladies. Do women tend to take the Rules of Golf more seriously than men do?
New Rules school
Rules School tuition was comparatively inexpensive: $35 for the day’s class, with an excellent lunch included. Over the course of the day, Latowski and Davis presented an overview of the entirety of the Rules of Golf in PowerPoint presentation form. Aware of how deadly dull PowerPoints can be, the FSGA supplied plenty of change-ups of media and even some moments of levity. One of the introductory slides reminded us of a quote from Seinfeld’s Kramer as he reflects on a golf partner who flouted the Rules: “A rule is a rule, and let’s face it – without rules, there’s chaos!”
Chaos is an interesting subject to invoke when it comes to the Rules of Golf. Kramer is right, of course, but with golf’s rules being notoriously complicated, the fact is that practically no single player – not even a professional at the top of the sport – has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Rules. Even the class of avid competitive golfers exhibits a widely varied knowledge of the Rules. At the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Dustin Johnson’s devil-may-care attitude toward the Rules cost him dearly when he played the wrong ball from a hazard – ahem, “penalty area” – at Kapalua. When even professionals aren’t fully aware of the Rules, it is clear that a certain amount of chaos endures.
Ruling on the Rules
So, do the new changes to the Rules make the game simpler and faster?
It depends on how much of a curve you’re willing to use.
For their presentation, I’m giving the seminar hosts a B+. Latowski moved efficiently through his portion of the rules, as did Davis, with a necessary measure of good humor, especially during lengthy digressions about esoteric decisions and interpretations of some truly rare potential Rules issues. If you are interested in getting a better grasp of the Rules, whether for tournament play or cocktail party chatter, I recommend it.
But what grade to the Rules-makers themselves deserve?
Per Thomas Pagel, who helped oversee the seven-year-long Rules overhaul, “From the project’s inception, our one goal was to make the Rules easier to understand and apply for all golfers.”
Against that standard, I’m giving the USGA and R&A a gentleman’s C, though a tougher grader might mark them Incomplete.
Are the Rules easier to understand? Yes, but not by much. In several cases, the new rule is only a kernel of usefulness away from seeming completely arbitrary.
A perfect example: the introduction of the new term, “penalty area,” replacing and expanding upon the old term, “water hazard.” I recognize the expansion was an impetus for the change – stakes are traditionally only supposed to go up around an area with water in it – but the simple term “hazard” is a long-standing part of the golf lexicon. Why not shorten it and belay the inevitable confusion that will come from a totally new term? It’s good that red stakes can go up around an area of high grass. Why can’t it remain a hazard?
“Through the green” has been replaced by the even more nebulous term “general area.” Why? “Casual water” is now “temporary water.” Why? Did your golf ball cross the margin of the hazard? No! It merely crossed the edge of the penalty area.
Does this remind anyone else of George Carlin’s famous rant (NSFW) about euphemisms?
Many golfers have rightly called out the new drop procedure, which is more a ballet position than an athletic gesture. As some golfers have hilariously pantomimed, it is far more awkward to drop a ball from knee height than, say, thigh-height, where practically every human being’s arms hang naturally.
Watching some @GolfChannel coverage last night inspired to come out and play around with some different techniques to see how I could fully use the new rules to my advantage. Drop #4 is my early favorite for what I’ll be going with this season pic.twitter.com/oPuhqKPQf2— Tee-k Kelly (@teekkelly) January 4, 2019
FInally, the worst new Rules wrinkle. Luckily it’s only a Local Rule option, but I can’t understand how golfers will be allowed, after declaring a ball lost, go to the edge of the fairway and drop at a penalty of two strokes near where the ball is presumed to be. But if a ball is lost, how can anyone be sure where it might be? This seems to run counter to the anchor principle of "playing the ball as it lies." How can a player play a ball as it lies without knowing where it lies? This just encourages golfers to be lazy and not hit provisional balls when a given shot’s result may be in serious doubt.
At the risk of sounding like I’m slamming the USGA and R&A, I do believe there are some positive takeaways from the Rules changes. C is a solidly passing grade, after all, and I recognize that dealing with such a beast as the Rules of Golf is a tall task. So here are some quick reactions to other Rules changes:
- Leaving the flagstick in the hole while putting? Fine, but it’s a novelty that saves a few seconds here and there and ultimately distances golfers from making the changes that would make real pace-of-play differences. It might also backfire if a group has both staunch leave-it-in and take-it-out practitioners.
- Reduction of lost-ball search time from five to three minutes? Excellent.
- 2-shot – er, “General” – penalty as an option for taking an unplayable and moving one’s ball out of a bunker? I like it, though it won’t come up often.
- Provisions for a maximum-score Local Rule? This is one of the best changes, because it opens a door for greater acceptance of Stableford scoring here in the U.S.
- Caddies are no longer allowed to align players from directly behind. Hallelujah!
- A caddie or player can now touch, without penalty, the green to indicate line of putt. This is okay since it was one of the most oft-transgressed rules I would see in competition, but if caddies start pressing down and poking subtle depressions into the green, it’s a new grey area for cheating.
- Players are allowed to fix spike marks or animal damage on greens. Fine, but it’s going to be very easy to push the boundaries now that players will feel less compelled to ask, “Can I fix this?”
In the end, I am not sure the game is substantially simpler in the wake of the new Rules of Golf. But minor progress is still progress, I suppose.