If there’s one thing that can be said for certain about the game of golf, it’s that it’s a game of rules. It’s a necessary measure for a sport that lacks uniformity across courses and where a seemingly endless number of scenarios can occur, but it’s also a daunting task to attempt to create a single set of rules that applies equally and fairly for the top golfers in the world and the casual weekend player. Most golfers at least make an attempt to play by the rules, but the sheer depth of the rule book can lead golfers to (knowingly or unknowingly) bend or break the rules from time to time. There’s even debate among golfers on how seriously to take things like gimmies and drop procedures, especially during a casual round.
While we’re certainly on the record as advocating for playing by the rules, there’s always room for rules to change and evolve. The USGA consistently release updates to the Rules of Golf in order to modernize the game or clear up confusing rules, which also leads to suggestions from the most avid golfers to casual hackers on changes they’d like to see made. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of the eight most common suggestions and how they’ve previously been addressed by the USGA:
I’m coming out the gates hot with probably the most widely-debated and controversial topic on this list: is the penalty for going out-of-bounds is too harsh? While players need to be incentivized to keep the ball in play, essentially costing players two additional strokes for one bad swing and almost guaranteeing that most golfers will walk away with at least a double bogey on the hole is a deflating feeling that can derail a round. Some have also argued that forcing players back to the tee if they’re not sure if a ball went OB is also a pace-of-play killer, although this can mostly be resolved by either taking a provisional or using the new rule implemented to address this where players can drop in the fairway parallel to where the drive crossed out of play with a two-stroke penalty.
However, this still doesn’t address the fact that one shot OB can be an absolute round-killer. One proposal is to either applying the same stroke-and-distance rule used for penalty area (minus the option to play the ball from out-of-bounds like you can from a penalty area), or allowing players to re-hit from the original spot but removing the additional stroke penalty. In other words, a wayward drive could be re-teed and counted as your second shot instead of the third. You’re still penalized by having to hit your next shot no closer to the hole than you were to start, but it still allows the opportunity to salvage something from the hole.
Casual golfers are not the only ones putting major considerations into this rule; in fact, the USGA has released detailed reports of their considerations and findings on altering how to allocate penalty strokes. There have even been attempts to alleviate some of the issues caused by this rule, including the new local rule addressed above. However, the penalty for going out of bounds has remained relatively the same.
There are some underlying reasons for this, including the fact that often times out-of-bounds markers can serve as a safety precaution by encouraging golfers to avoid hitting into people, roads, or houses and removing that precaution could lead to more damages and injuries. Ultimately, though, the decision is a philosophical one; changing the rule “would conflict with the fundamental challenge of the game: the player must play the ball so that it comes to rest on the course and can be found, or face having to play the stroke again.”
We’ve all been here: you stripe a drive down the middle, only to find that someone before you hit the same exact drive and then left a nasty divot in their wake. It’s a thoroughly frustrating experience and one a number of golfers believe should entitle you to find a cleaner lie. Yes, we all know the famous golf mantra of “play it as it lies,” but despite what Shooter McGavin might claim there are instances where golfers get free relief and this should be one of them.
Worth noting: this should only apply to balls in the fairway. Tough lie on a ball in the rough? Hit a straighter shot next time.
While Shooter may have been off-base in the specific scenario referenced above, the general idea still applies. One of the foundational principles of golf is to play the course as you find it and play the ball as it lies. There are instances outlined in the rules to provide relief from “abnormal course conditions”, but a divot in the fairway is far from abnormal.
There’s also the question of what defines a divot? One of the goals of the rules in any game or sport is to set clear standards for all the possible situations and outcomes, and defining what constitutes a divot is easily debatable and provides too much room for interpretation.
This is a rule that can be implemented based on the conditions (aka “winter rules”), but why make it conditional? Let’s take the guess work out of it and make it a permanent rule. If you can clean a ball on the green, why not on a fairway? Again, this should only apply to balls in the fairway; no using this to bail yourself out of a buried lie in the rough.
This is essentially an extension of the previous section regarding divots. You’re going to get lucky and unlucky breaks throughout any round you play. You can have bad lies in the fairway and good lies in the rough; part of the challenge of golf is overcoming and making the most of those tough plays.
Additionally, golf is an outdoor spot and just like any other sport played outdoors, weather conditions are an essential factor in the game. There’s no relief for when a hot day dries out the grass or when the wind gets a hold of your ball, so why should a wet course be any different?
If we’re allowed to get a feel for a shot and how the ground will respond at any other spot on the course (including a penalty area, thanks to a newly-implemented rule), why is the bunker any different? This doesn’t mean players should be able to turn their club into a shovel that gets them out of a fried egg, but we should at least be able to test out what kind of sand we’re dealing with before taking a hack. This especially applies to us regular golfers; we don’t have the luxury of playing on Tour-ready courses every week, we’re mostly dealing with public courses where bunkers have been known to range from soft and fine to harder than cement and everything in between.
Part of this could be to prevent a full day of hackers from turning a bunker into a minefield, but at a certain point golfers need to be responsible for taking care of the course throughout the round. However, that may be placing a bit too much trust in the average player (more on that in a minute).
In case you forgot, bunkers are intended to penalize you for making an errant shot and this rule is part of the penalty for ending up in the sand. To quote the Rules of Golf directly: “Bunkers are specially prepared areas intended to test the player’s ability to play a ball from the sand. To make sure the player confronts this challenge, there are some restrictions on touching the sand before the stroke is made…” Let’s also keep in mind that sand behaves differently than grass, so grounding your directly behind the ball is an easy way to negate some of the difficult or unusual lies that bunkers are intended to create.
Should there be a time when you can improve your lie in a sand trap? It’s been mentioned a few times already that you shouldn’t necessarily have a free out from putting yourself in a bad position, but the punishment should be handed out by the course instead of other golfers. Hitting out of a bunker is hard enough as is, should it be made even harder because some jabroni in front of you couldn’t figure out how to use a rake?
Potential fixes for this could include allowing a player to fix the footprint and place the ball back in its original position, or simply moving the ball out of the footprint but no closer to the hole. It’s also worth considering that this was a temporary rule during COVID when rakes were removed from courses and seemed to be well-received.
This falls under the same umbrella as playing out of a divot, especially when you consider that, in general, the rules tend to give even less latitude for relief when you end up in areas of the course that are intended to be an obstacle. It is worth noting that you are able to repair footprints in the bunker as long as it doesn’t improve the lie or what is known as “conditions affecting the stroke”. Also, if you find yourself in a lie that seems impossible to get out of, you can take a straight line back from where your ball lies and drop in a one club-length relief area on that line with a two-stroke penalty.
Club manufacturers are getting giddy at just the mention of this one. There can still be a limit of 14 clubs for the pros, but does this really make a difference for most amateur golfers? I could carry five woods, eight irons, six wedges, and one of those funky “chipper” clubs, and it still wouldn’t stop me from making some terrible swings. The hardest part of golf isn’t picking the right club, it’s actually hitting the club you picked.
There’s two parts to this question, the first being “why put a limit on clubs?” There’s the historical perspective: when golf clubs made the transition from hickory to steel shafts, some golfers decided to carry a set of both hickory and steel shafts to ease the transition, with some carrying as many as 30 clubs during a round. The USGA and R&A (with some input from the poor caddies that had to lug all those clubs around) decided things had gone far enough and that there needed to be a limit on the number of clubs a golfer can wield.
There’s also the view that rules exist to create a level playing field for all competitors. Theoretically, if one golfer carried a specific club for every conceivable shot they might encounter on the course and another stuck to the traditional 14 clubs, the golfer with more clubs would have an advantage. If we’re to maintain the idea that golf should be, first and foremost, a test of a player’s skill and not their equipment, then there needs to be a reasonable limit how many clubs can be used.
Why 14? That’s another answer that goes back to when the rule was implemented; it was the most commonly-used number at the time. The fact is there has to be a limit set somewhere and there either haven’t been enough arguments made or enough convincing reasons to pick a new number. And let’s be honest, do your really need more excuses to drop more money on new clubs?
For those of you that weren’t playing golf prior to 1952 when this rule was abolished, a “stymie” was when your shot was blocked by another player’s ball because, well, those were the rules then. In other words, if a ball was sitting between your ball and the cup as you’re lining up your putt, your only option was to find a way around (or over) the ball; marking or moving the other ball wasn’t allowed.
It’s not a surprise why this rule was changed, but you still can’t help but wonder how it would affect strategy around the green, especially during something like match play. Also, with etiquette having a heavy influence in golf, would intentionally stymieing an opponent be considered uncouth or simply gamesmanship?
It’s not hard to imagine why the stymie disappeared, but it is worth mentioning that it was only ever really utilized in match play events, which was the most common format in the early days of golf before stroke play took over. In that context, it makes sense as the focus of match play is “you vs. your opponent” instead of “you vs. the field of golfers”. Using another player’s ball to your advantage or their disadvantage feels somewhat fair when you’re the only two competitors, but in a scenario where you can’t directly affect the vast majority of the field, it creates an uneven playing field.
There’s also still a residual form of this rule in effect today: in stroke play, if you hit another player’s ball while on the green, the player who took the stroke incurs a two-stroke penalty. In match play? No penalty.
This is another one for us amateur hackers out there. Imagine this scenario (it shouldn’t be too hard as we’ve all had it happen at some point): you hit a drive and while it’s off-line and misses the fairway, definitely remains in play. You and your partners head up to where you think the ball should have ended up, but you can’t find it. Maybe the rough’s too thick, maybe it rolled under a leaf, maybe a mischievous squirrel ran off with it; whatever the case, that ball has somehow disappeared.
Now here’s possibly the most frustrating part of all of this: if you were a little bit better at golf, you probably would’ve hit the fairway. If you were a lot better at golf, you could be on the Tour, meaning you would have had spotters, rules officials, and a gallery full of spectators that could’ve spotted that ball and helped you find it. However, you’re stuck with your 3 other buddies on the tee who were probably too busy cracking a joke, ordering a drink, or worrying about their own shot to have any clue where your ball ended up.
In this instance, you should be able to take a drop at your best guess of where the ball should be and play on. You should probably get some confirmation from another player in the group that the ball definitely stayed in play, but if that’s the case, the only penalty you should receive is losing a ball that shouldn’t be lost.
I’ll repeat the refrain one last time: bad breaks are part of the game. Tired of losing balls in the rough? Get better. Then you can either play in an event where the gallery can help, or you’ll just hit the fairway next time.
It’s fun to theorize and discuss on how the Rules of Golf could change, but let’s not hide what’s at the heart of (most of) these suggestions: they would make golf easier. Newsflash, golf isn’t supposed to be easy. I’m not here to guilt you out of loosening up the rules when playing a casual round (or pretend like I don’t do the same), but simply serve as a reminder that the rules are ultimately what hold the game together. They’re what allows us to hold tournaments, keep a Handicap Index, or even just compete against your weekly foursome. They exist to allow the game to be played fairly but also provide a challenge for you to overcome.
Have a rule that you want to see implemented? You could try hitting up the USGA and see if they take your suggestion…or you can start your own club and enact a Local Rule for your own tournaments (provided it complies with the USGA guidelines).
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