New Rules of Golf for 2019: What you need to know
The U.S. Golf Association and the R&A have made changes to the Rules of Golf that will take effect Jan. 1, and there's plenty to consider. These changes are part of the ruling bodies' efforts to modernize the game, eliminate several unusual rules that could lead to head-scratching penalties and even possibly speed up play.
In all, the rule book was consolidated from 34 to 24 rules, but each of these has sub-rules. There's a lot to consider. Some of these changes might require a change in thinking on the part of players, and competitive players in particular should grab a copy of the new rules or familiarize themselves with all the changes online.
That said, there are several basic rules changes that are likely to come into play on Day 1, even for casual golfers. Check out these topic areas addressing rules that could pop up in a New Year's Day round of golf. (The changes mentioned are in no way intended to replace reading the new Rules of Golf or to cover every change.)
We'll start at the green.
Players will be permitted to leave the flagstick in the hole while playing a shot from the green, and there is no penalty if the ball strikes the flagstick. In the past, players had to pull the flagstick from the hole or have somebody else (a caddie or another golfer) tend and pull the flagstick before the ball struck it.
This rule was changed to help speed up play, but it might have implications beyond pace of play. For example, PGA Tour player Bryson DeChambeau has said he will leave the flagstick in the hole even on short putts because he believes the flagstick will help keep more shots from racing past the hole. There has been research by several players and students of the game, including by short-game guru Dave Pelz, that claimed players have a statistically better chance of a ball dropping into or coming to rest near the hole if the flag is left in place.
It still will be against the rules to position the flagstick in such a way as to create a perceived benefit. That is, you can't intentionally lean the flagstick forward in the hole to try to deflect a ball downward. The flagstick still must be placed upright in the center of the hole unless a player finds that it is leaning in a certain direction when he or she arrives at the green. In that case, the player could leave the flagstick as they find it or center it in the hole.
Goodbye water hazards, hello "penalty areas." The new rules do away with various traditional terminology and include many hazardous spots in what are now called penalty areas.
The USGA defines penalty area as "bodies of water or other areas defined by the committee where a ball is often lost or unable to be played. For one penalty stroke, you may use specific relief options to play a ball from outside the penalty area."
These areas could be a dry ravine, thick woods from where players are unlikely to play a shot, even a canyon. Or they could be a typical pond.
When a ball lies in or touches any part of the penalty area, players can take relief with a one-stroke penalty, much as under the old rules they could take relief from a body of water. It must be known or virtually certain that a ball went into a penalty area and was not possibly lost elsewhere.
Players also are allowed to play from the penalty area without penalty, the same as under the old rules when a player would hit a shot from inside a water hazard.
There are two ways to mark a penalty area: yellow lines and stakes, or red lines and stakes. There are differences in the two methods as far as taking relief.
If a penalty area is marked in yellow, a player may take stroke-and-distance relief, meaning they drop from a defined area where they played their previous shot. The player also can take back-on-the-line relief, dropping on a line that extends from the hole through the spot where the ball crossed into the penalty area, no nearer the hole. Using that option, a player can go back as far as they like. Both relief scenarios require a one-stroke penalty, and the player must drop the ball within one club-length of the chosen spot. Only those two options are available if the penalty area is marked in yellow.
If a penalty area is marked with red, the player has a third option: The player can take lateral relief within two clubs of the spot where the ball crossed the line, no nearer the hole. That drop zone possibly could extend as far as the fairway, but the player is not allowed to drop back in the same penalty area. This lateral option applies only to penalty areas marked in red.
Also of note: A player will be free to ground a club or move loose impediments in a penalty area. But when a player chooses to play a shot from a penalty area, the player has no relief under other rules governing abnormal course conditions, embedded balls or unplayable lies. So if the ball is embedded in mud in a penalty area, the player must either play it as it lies or take the applicable relief with penalties mentioned above.
Local rule for out of bounds, lost ball
If a player hits a ball out of bounds or loses a ball, the general rules still require the player to return to the spot of the previous stroke and take a one-stroke penalty - a standard stroke-and-distance scenario. For example, if a player sends a tee ball past the white stakes and out of bounds, he must play another ball from the tee, which becomes the third shot after the penalty. It's the same scenario for a lost ball.
But the ruling bodies have added the option of a local rule that provides time-saving relief in such a scenario. Instead of the player returning to the spot of the previous shot in the event of a lost ball or a ball out of bounds, the player can take a drop in the nearest spot of the fairway (within two club-lengths of the edge of the fairway), no nearer the hole than where the ball crossed the OB line, with a two-stroke penalty.
The same local rule applies to a lost ball, with the player able to drop in the fairway across from where the previous ball is estimated to have come to rest.
This is only a local rule, and the course's rules committee must deem its use. This rule is not intended for high-level competitions, where the standard stroke-and-distance penalties will be in play. Consider it a gift to typical amateurs that will speed up play but not force somebody to march 200 yards or more back to a teeing area after learning that a ball is out of bounds.
Keep in mind, it's a two-stroke penalty under the local rule. If a player sends a tee shot out of bounds and proceeds under this local rule, they will play their fourth shot after dropping near the edge of the fairway (many amateurs casually throw down a ball and say they are playing their third from the new location, ignoring rules about stroke and distance). This is equitable to a player taking a stroke-and-distance penalty, then finding the fairway with the third shot from the tee. The next shot from the fairway would be the fourth.
Take a knee
Speaking of all these drops, players should drop the ball from knee height instead of shoulder height whenever a drop is specified for relief.
There is another important factor when taking a drop for relief: The ball must remain within the designated relief area, either one club-length or two club-lengths, depending on the type of relief.
For example: If a player is allowed two club-lengths relief from a penalty area, no nearer the hole, the ball must remain within that two-club-length area. If a ball bounces or rolls and comes to rest outside that original relief area, the player must re-drop within the designated area. If it again comes to rest outside that area, the player must place it on the spot where it struck the ground in the relief area on the second drop.
For comparison, in some scenarios under the old rules a player could take a drop within two club-lengths of a point of relief, and if the ball rolled another two club-lengths no nearer the hole, it was in play. That could result in a total of almost four club-lengths before the ball came to rest in play.
The simple takeaway: The ball must be played from within the original drop area, and if it rolls outside that area after two drops, it must be placed by hand. This eliminates nine re-dropping scenarios in the old rules, and by dropping from knee-height, it's more likely the ball will stay within the prescribed area.
Mark Litton checks a yardage with a laser rangefinder at the 2008 Glenmuir PGA Professional Championship East Regional Qualifier. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Distance-measuring devices such as laser rangefinders or GPS are allowed unless the rules committee bans them. The old rules stated that such devices were prohibited unless the committee allowed them.
This just cleans up the rules a bit, as most committees allowed the use of such devices anyway. But don't expect to see them in the U.S. Open anytime soon.
The old double-hit
There is no longer a penalty for hitting a ball multiple times on the same swing. The old rules stated that if a player swung and hit the ball more than once (most common on chips and pitches), the player had to count the stroke and take a penalty stroke.
Under the new rules, if a player hits the ball more than once, the player just counts the intended shot and plays the ball from where it came to rest.