Few pursuits have as many arcane rules as the game of golf. Did you know, for example, that you can play a shot from within a clubhouse (if it’s not out of bounds), and even open a window or door to facilitate such a shot? The Rules say that you can. They say a lot of other things, too—including a few things that I think golf’s governing bodies, the USGA and R&A, should consider revising.
I do not suggest that foot-wedge shots should be made legal, as one golf enthusiast that I know suggested. But I do think there are a few Rules that, in the interest of fairness and promoting a faster pace of play, could be modified. Here are 10 suggestions to get the discussion started.
1. Limit of 14 Clubs
USGA Rule 4.1b(1) limits a player to using no more than 14 clubs. It can be argued that no player should need more than 14 clubs—and that learning how to craft shots using fewer than 14 might even make someone a better player. But the decision should be left to the individual golfer. If players can increase their enjoyment of the game by carrying 15 or more clubs, they should be allowed to. Would this create an unfair situation in competition play? Not if the same opportunity is given to every player. And using more than 14 clubs might not even necessarily be an advantage; the more clubs a player carries, the more difficult it may be to master them all or choose between them in a given situation. So in the end, deciding on the optimal mix of clubs to carry could add a strategic element to the game that only exists to a lesser degree today.
2. Relief from Divots
The Rules of Golf grant relief from many kinds of abnormal ground conditions—including Rule 13.1c(2), which allows a player to repair ball marks and spike marks on putting surfaces—two kinds of alternations made to the course by other players. The rules look to strike a balance between the longstanding tradition of playing the ball “as it lies” and fairness, and in the case of this rule, they indicate that on greens, such relief is warranted. But no such relief is offered in the case of a ball coming to rest in a divot, which is manifestly inconsistent. Relief should be granted from divots (and sand-filled divots), assuming that there is consensus agreement that the ball does, in fact, lay in a divot.
3. Relief in Bunkers
There’s nothing worse than hitting into a bunker and finding your ball nestled at the bottom of some prior player’s unraked footprint, or one of the canyons created by another player’s attempts to escape the sand. Purists will cite this as another example of “rub of the green,” and note that hazards are meant to be hazards. In other words, it’s your own fault if you hit it there. But again, this is manifestly unfair. Golf’s not meant to be fair, some may say—and there are plenty of naturally occurring situations in which it rightfully is not. But the sad truth is, many players do not take time to rake bunkers before moving on, and the result is an unnatural condition that makes golf not just less fair, but less fun. Relief is granted in bunkers from casual water; it should be granted in the case of thoughtless players, too. The rules should allow for players to place the ball at the point of nearest relief, no closer to the hole, with one exception: If a player fails to extricate a ball from a bunker and it rolls back into his own footprints, there should be no relief. That’s a mess of his or her own making, and therefore not unnatural.
4. Stroke and Distance Penalty for Loss of Ball or Ball Hit Out of Bounds
Rules 18.2a(1) and (2) cover balls that are lost or hit out of bounds. Players have three minutes to search for and find wayward balls or they must be declared lost or O.B., at which point the player must take stroke-and-distance relief by adding one penalty stroke and playing their next shot from the place where the previous stroke was made. The rules do allow a player to have declared and played a provisional ball, but the stroke-and-distance penalty still applies. Few people have ever liked this rule, both because it seems like an unduly harsh penalty compared to others but also because it can adversely affect pace of play. The USGA has identified an optional local rule that allows a player to, “for two penalty strokes,” “estimate the spot where your ball is lost or went out of bounds and then find the nearest fairway edge that is not nearer the hole than the estimated spot. You can drop a ball in the fairway within two club-lengths of that fairway edge point, or anywhere between there and the estimated spot where your ball is lost or went out of bounds.” This is a helpful local rule when and where it is applied. But in effect, while you are only penalized one stroke for a ball hit into a penalty area, you’re penalized two shots for lost balls and shots hit O.B. The rules should be modified to provide the option in both cases of taking a one-stroke penalty, with the next shot being played within two club-lengths of the position at which the player is most likely to have lost a ball or gone out of bounds.
5. Three-Minute Time Limit to Find a Lost Ball
Rule 18.2a(1) dictates that a ball is lost if it cannot be found within three minutes after a player or their caddie begins to search for it. Players used to be allowed five minutes before this changed in 2019, and let’s face it, most recreational players will still take five minutes (or more) to find a wayward pellet. Given the severe penalty for a lost ball, this is understandable. Three minutes may be perfect for preparing a soft-boiled egg, but it’s not a fair amount of time to try to avoid a stroke-and-distance penalty. It should be changed back to five minutes. The additional two minutes, even when multiplied by several ball searches over the course of a round, will not substantially affect the length of a round. There are other, fairer ways to combat slow play.
6. Ball Embedded by Someone Stepping on It
Rule 16.3a(2) specifies how and when a player is entitled to relief when a ball is embedded. If your ball is embedded in its own pitch mark in the General Area (fairway and rough), you’re entitled to relief. But this is not the case if “the ball is pushed into the ground by someone stepping on it.” Say what? Assuming that it can be established that someone pushed your ball into the ground, either accidentally or otherwise, relief should be granted. It’s certainly an unnatural condition. Nearest relief no closer to the hole plus one club-length would be appropriate.
7. Interference from Boundary Objects
The Rules of Golf normally provide relief from artificial objects, such as cart paths, buildings, or even stakes marking penalty areas. But if your ball comes to rest in bounds but in a position where the boundary fence interferes with your stance or swing, there is no relief. You must either play it as it lies, take a stroke and distance penalty and play again from the spot of your last stroke, or declare your ball unplayable. Why? Why should a shot hit that’s almost gone O.B. be penalized more than one hit near to, or even into, a penalty area? Nearest relief no closer to the hole plus one club-length should be provided in the case of boundary objects such as fences.
8. Use of Distance-Measuring Devices
In 2019, the USGA ruled that distance-measuring devices such as laser rangefinders were henceforth to be allowed. But it also noted that “the committee in charge of a competition does have the option of prohibiting the use of distance-measuring devices by local rule”—as the USGA itself does for some of its championships. You can even carry such devices if they have slope-reading functions, but you cannot use those functions—only the distance-measuring one. Allowing players to quickly and easily ascertain a yardage saves time and improves pace of play. But in many events, including PGA Tour events and three of the four majors, they’re still prohibited. Which leads to collective hours of unnecessary pacing off yardages and discussions between players and caddies. In 2021, the PGA Championship became the only major to allow them, and it makes sense. Why make players spend five minutes pacing and chatting and looking at yardage books forever when a simple click of a button can give a precise yardage? The player still must choose the right club for the shot and conditions and execute the shot—it’s not like judgment and skill aren’t still required.
9. Rules for Relief from Penalty Areas
Many players get confused when confronted with the options available to them after they’ve hit into a penalty area, partly because those options differ depending on which color area you’re in. Balls in a yellow area create two options: stroke-and-distance relief from the spot where the previous stroke was made; and back-on-the-line relief, which allows you to drop on a line extending back from the hole to the point your ball entered the hazard (and as far back from that point as you want). Red penalty areas add another option—lateral relief within a two club-length distance no closer to the hole. Since there could be situations where lateral relief (no closer to the hole) could be possible and advantageous from a yellow hazard, why not standardize the rules for both kinds of penalty areas and eliminate this potential confusion?
10. Pace of Play Rule
Rule 5.6b encourages prompt pace of play and states that “the player should make the stroke in no more than 40 seconds after they are (or should be) able to play without interference or distraction…” This is a good recommendation, but it has no teeth. The length of time it takes to play a round of golf limits participation in the game and makes it less fun for those who do play. Would it be fair to require, under penalty of one stroke, a player to play his next stroke with a ball in play (i.e. after finding a ball in the trees or making a drop) within 40 seconds? I think so.
What do you think of these suggestions? What golf rules would you change and why?