Golf | 10 Mar 2017 | By Michael Vlismas

The Rules of Golf are Getting Simpler

All hail the burrowing animals of the world. Golf is trying to simplify itself. And for this we should all be grateful. The Royal and Ancient (R&A) and the United States Golf Association (USGA) have proposed 36 changes to the Rules of Golf, with a starting date of 1 January 2019.

Behind most of the changes is the desire to make the rules more understandable and to simplify the game. The respected golf writer Peter Dobereiner once wrote an entire book about the rules purely to explain them to himself. Especially the one concerning burrowing animals. Please don’t try and educate me on this one. Many have tried valiantly and failed. One Sunshine Tour rules official told me the drive to simplify the rules of golf will even extend to simplifying its language, from the current “A player” to “You”. The changes have also been billed as an attempt at modernising the rules of golf. Apparently the “Millennials” will be the saviour of us all, even golf. So we want them to like the game.

Making the Game Fast and Fair

Having looked at the rules, I think it could be summed up as making the game more fair and making it fast. There is the proposal to scrap a penalty for accidently moving the ball on the green. Hands up every Tour pro who agrees with this (Please put your hand down Dustin Johnson. We know your feeling on this one already)? It does seem patently unfair that you should be penalised for something you had no control over, or perhaps did by accident.

Another proposal is no penalty for accidently moving your ball while searching for it. Bravo. You can lose a Hobbit in the rough on some golf courses, never mind trying to avoid stepping on your ball while searching for it. When it comes to dropping the ball, this will no longer need to be done at shoulder height. You will now be able to “drop” the ball from as little as one inch above the ground. Why you can’t just place it, and still have to drop from one inch, I’m not entirely sure. But we won’t get too picky.

Golf Distance-measuring Devices May be Used

Distance-measuring devices may be used. Boring. Now we’re going to have golfers shouting at inanimate devices for their underclub on a shot, rather than the wonderfully explosive debates we often have between caddie and player. And to be honest, who needs yet another “device” making a decision in the world. I say bring back the human element with this one. To help make the game faster, you will be allowed no more than 40 seconds to make a stroke, and there will be no penalty for playing out of turn to encourage “Ready Golf”. Playing the game faster is a necessity in modern life. I just hope that in all this haste to play the game faster we don’t lose some of the basic etiquette that has been a hallmark of golf.


The search time for a golf ball has been cut from five to three minutes. No biggie here, I don’t think. My golf balls tend to operate within the Black Hole sphere of lost balls in any case, so three, five or 30 minutes will make no difference to my game.

Not allowing a caddie to line up a player before a shot or putt is a brilliant proposal. I have difficulty understanding why golf professionals need their caddie to line them up. Apart from anything else, it just looks silly and makes a mockery of the word professional. Have all the discussions you want with your caddie, and then get on with it.

You will also be Able to Remove Loose Impediments in a Bunker

I see nothing wrong with this. You’re already in a hazard, so why try and make things even harder? And no spectator likes getting hit with a stone flying like a bullet from a bunker shot played by a pro. Another great rule proposal is being allowed to drop outside a bunker for a penalty of two strokes if you decide your ball is unplayable. What weekend hacker wouldn’t take a two-stroke penalty from an impossible bunker lie rather than hack away at a ball plugged under the lip while his opponent is already ordering drinks at the 19th? And if you’re playing in Scotland, you could get lost in a pot bunker for days.

Although, I do have wonderful memories of a triple bogey I made from the Road Hole bunker on the Old Course and I am partial to the pain and often quizzical looks on golfers’ faces of seeing at least two shots played and the ball remaining in a bunker.

Fixing Spike Marks on the Green

You’ll soon also be able to repair spike marks on the green. While this may sound like a great idea, I think you may actually slow down play with this one. Golfers can be pedantic creatures, and you may find some taking a severely agriculture route and tending the line of their putt like Keith Kirsten.

Golfers are Split Regarding the New Rules

Chatting to several professionals at our recent Sunshine Tour events, the opinions on the proposals are of course many and varied. “It seems as though they’re trying to make the game a little simpler and speed it up as well,” said Scotland’s Scott Jamieson. “The dropping one I thought was a bit strange, but I suppose it will reduce the number of times you need to drop.”

South Africa’s Thomas Aiken is neither here nor there regarding the changes, and believes if anything, a change to the golf ball should be looked at. “To be honest, in the professional game whatever they change is really irrelevant because we learn the new rules and we’ve still got to get the ball in the hole. But simplifying the rules for the amateur makes sense. It’s a complicated game as it is.

“I think they’re heading in the right direction trying to simplify the rules. But the golf ball has become too good. It’s making courses longer and longer and they’re less fun to play. Hopefully they get that right soon.”

Fellow South African Peter Karmis is a little concerned about simplifying the rules too much. “Golf is a challenge. That’s kind of the point. Playing quicker is great because I think people play better when they play quicker. But I don’t know if simpler makes the game better.” The man who loves to read the Bible in its original Greek takes an equally philosophical view of the rules of golf. “The rules are there to make it fair. Sometimes you get a raw deal and sometimes you get a good break. I don’t have any negative opinions about it.” And as for the new dropping rule? “That’s weird,” said Karmis. “Look, there’s also something to be said for tradition. I have no problem with no penalty for moving the ball on the green. I think that’s fair. You’re already on the green, and now you move the ball by mistake and get penalised. I mean, you’ve just smashed the ball 300 yards and then moved it a few inches and it’s the same shot.”

Cutting down on the number of rules in the game must surely be a good thing, though. As golfers we often tell ourselves that this must be one of the simplest games on the planet involving a ball, a club and a hole. Even the act of hitting the ball is amongst the simplest in all of sport – it just sits there, unmoving, waiting to be hit. Yet we have no doubt overcomplicated a very simple game that was once perfectly understood and played by shepherds.

As Dobereiner himself wrote, “If our forefathers could get along happily enough on the iron rations of a dozen basic rules, why do we need fifteen paragraphs on etiquette, thirty-five definitions, forty-one rules with clauses, sub-clauses and appendices as numerous as the grains of sand in Hell bunker?” What would Dobereiner have written now of an even more greatly expanded rules book?

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify,” said Henry David Thoreau.

Then again, he probably never experienced the existential anguish, the intense emotional trauma and the unadulterated anger at hitting a most magnificent drive, only to see it finish in a divot in the middle of the fairway.

You may also like Michael Vlismas’s opinion piece on the opening of Soweto Country Club.