Like everyone else in golf, I’ve spent some time recently getting my head round the new rules that were introduced on January 1st.
I must admit the process didn’t get off to a great start when I saw someone taking a drop from ‘knee height’. I thought it looked ridiculous. “What,” I thought to myself, “is wrong with anywhere above the knee? How does anyone have a problem with that? And what was wrong with what we were all doing before?”
All of which brought me immediately back to the notion that the idea of simplifying rules almost automatically makes them more complicated. That it is what almost always happens when a committee decides something. I actually have some experience in that area, when I was on the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council.
For a year we talked about how too many people were making the halfway cut in tournaments. Which led to those tournaments having to use two tees on the weekend just to get everyone round before it got dark. We hate using two tees on Saturday and Sunday. Play is typically too slow. So we decided to introduce a second cut after Saturday’s play, to get the number of players down to 65, which is a manageable number.
Ah, but because there were 20 players involved in the decision, 65 was seen by some as not enough. So it went to 70. Fine. But there was no Saturday cut if fewer than 78 players made the halfway cut; only if more than that qualified. Still with me?
“I’ve spent some time recently getting my head round the new rules that were introduced on January 1st … I must admit the process didn’t get off to a great start when I saw someone taking a drop from ‘knee height’. I thought it looked ridiculous.”
There were so many contingencies because a committee was involved. And it seems to me the same thing has happened with this ball-dropping thing. Nobody in the world now knows how to drop the ball properly. So we have a more complex situation than we had on December 31, 2018.
But it should be so simple. All we have to do is make it easy for a player to get the ball from hand to ground so that the game can continue. It’s that straightforward. But now we have a situation where you have to stand a certain way - you can’t bend your knees - and you have to drop from this exact height; not too low or high. The simplest thing in the world is now complicated.
Look, I know what the motivation is: speeding up play. The rules people want to get away from players having to drop once, then twice because the ball bounces and runs away. But really, how often does that happen to a regular golfer? And even when it does, how long does it then take to drop a ball twice? I have to think 99 percent of golfers have never consulted the rulebook on that one and things have been fine as far as I can see. This is really just a pro golf issue. So what is the point in foisting it on everyone?
Having said that, there is one new rule I really like – putting with the pin in the hole. It might even be the best rule change ever, especially in the amateur game where people tend to play without caddies. It is also going to help people putt better than before. I was sold on that after only a couple of games this year.
Think about it. Let’s say two guys are playing together. One has played from a green side bunker and is raking the sand. His mate has a 75-foot putt. Before, the guy putting would have had to wait for all the raking to be finished before the pin could be attended. Now, he can just go ahead and putt without worrying about hitting the pin or penalty shots. How can that be bad? Clearly, the pace of play is going to improve.
Anyway, I’ve been putting with the pin in from all distances. It seems to me to be easier, even if I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to do it in a tournament, especially from short range. And, again, there is a pace of play issue here. Before, we were forever taking the pin out, putting it back in, laying it down carefully. All that stuff is all but eliminated. Everyone can just walk up there and putt.
There is a continuing debate, of course.
Does it really make sense to putt with the pin in? Or is it still better to take it out? Even Bryson DeChambeau hasn’t come up with a definitive answer yet. So I guess we are all going to have to make up our own minds. For me though, there is something beneficial about having the pin in the hole. Suddenly, you have a definable target, rather than just trying to get the ball to roll between the two edges of the cup. To me, that makes more sense than trying to ‘kick’ the ball between goal posts.
One last thing on this. Pretty much everyone on Tour takes the pin out of the hole when reading a putt. That vertical line only obscures things. A slope behind the hole can help you see the break. So there is that to consider too.
Bottom line: I can’t see putting with the pin in ever becoming that prevalent on the professional tours, except on really long putts (although, if it does become obvious that leaving the pin in the hole makes putting easier, everyone on Tour will be doing it the next day). But in ‘regular’ golf at the club it has so many benefits. I’m all for it.
“For me though, there is something beneficial about having the pin in the hole. Suddenly, you have a definable target, rather than just trying to get the ball to roll between the two edges of the cup.”
I’m also in favour of us all being able to pat down spike marks and just about anything else sticking up between ball and hole on the greens. I mean, what difference does it make what caused the obstruction? Again, that’s the best and simplest way to approach this. If you say you can pat down certain things but not others, it inevitably leads to disputes. And this new rule eliminates all of the sensitivities we as golfers have always had when it come to the lines of putts. There have been many controversies in the past, with golfers being accused – and sometimes convicted – of patting down spike marks. Now, that is all in the past, which is no bad thing.
Still, some have argued that an aura of suspicion is only going to be encouraged by some of the new rules. There is, for example, no penalty for kicking or moving your ball accidentally when looking for it in long grass. All you have to do is recreate the lie as well as possible and move on. Okay, but the more cynical observers see this as a licence to create a lie slightly better than the original. That view is disappointing in a game that has always had to trust the participants to do the right thing.
Moving on, I’m not sure the reduction in time you can search for a ball for five minutes to three minutes is too significant. What was wrong with five minutes? Rounds of golf are not taking five hours because players are allowed to look for balls for five minutes. That has nothing to do with pace of play. So, while I don’t necessarily disagree with three-minute searches, to what end have we made this change?
Plus, at least in pro golf, there is also a little wrinkle in this area. What happens when a player hits his ball into long grass on a hole where his caddie has walked forward? Does the search time start when the caddie arrives on the scene, or when the player gets there? The rules say the caddie. So if that becomes an issue, I can see players telling their caddies not to go ahead. All of which will only slow play up even more than before.
I must admit I did smile a little at this next one. Having been guilty of slamming a few irons into bags over the years, I was aware of the previous rule. Damaged clubs were deemed unusable if, say, the shaft was bent. But, yet again, it never made much sense when you think about it. How can a club that has collided with something hard ever be better than one that has not? So why bother with a rule preventing use of the ‘damaged’ version?
On a more positive note, a so-called ‘double hit’ counting as only one shot is logical. For one thing, no one does that on purpose. And for another, how often does a double-hit send the ball closer to the hole? Not often at all. So why worry about it?
To sum up, my overall feeling about rules in the big picture has always been to ask myself the same question: how would I feel if another player in the field did X? If it feels unfair, then the player should be penalised. If it does not, let’s get on with playing.