2012: Time for a Substantially Revised Rules of Golf?

After years of listening to golfers complain that the Rules of Golf are too complicated and then hearing Glen Nager's recent speech at the USGA's annual meeting in which he expressed the desire for a simpler code of Rules, we have decided to undertake a project of rewriting the Rules of Golf. We do not know where this project will take us and imagine there will be three possible conclusions: (1) that the current Rules do an exceptional job, (2) that there are some areas for improvement (but nothing drastic) or (3) that the current code should be torn up as it falls far short of serving what should be its purpose.

The primary goal of this project is to simplify the Rules of Golf to make them more readily understandable. Today, we sense that most people are too intimidated by the Rules even to open the Rules book to look for an answer (which is a tremendous waste, given the two million or so copies of the Rules of Golf printed by the USGA every two years). We believe that the current Rules are a great deal easier to understand than the pre-1984 versions of the code; however, we believe that the desire by the R&A and USGA to be "fair" and to limit or reduce the severity of penalties has lead to an increase in complexity in the recent editions.

In order to simplify the Rules, we believe there will need to be significant compromises in principle for the sake of simplicity. These compromises will be in both directions, with some quite lenient (e.g., the elimination of dropping; the elimination of the distinction between water hazards and lateral water hazards) and some harsh (e.g., no relief under Rules 24-2 and 25-1 for intervention on the line of putt). The ultimate question will be whether the increased simplicity of the Rules will more than offset these philosophical losses.

Occasionally the Rules go to great lengths to address unlikely situations (e.g., Rule 25-1b(iv)). Many such provisions will be eliminated, with the occasional good break and bad break as the result. We believe that the overall goal of simplicity should be more important than the results in some unlikely and rare situations.

The goal of a simpler code should have a number of side-effects, such as a thinner Rules book and the need for fewer Decisions. Many people have pointed to the fact that there are more than 1200 Decisions as a sign that the Rules are too complicated; they may have a point. While we do not necessarily believe that shorter is always simpler (i.e., sometimes the effort to be concise can lead to confusion (e.g., the use of "otherwise")), we do believe that a simpler code should, overall, be shorter than the current one. Like it or not, the general public does associate length with complexity (hence the ignorant cries to return to the original 13 rules).

We intend to approach this project along the following lines:

  1. To agree on the overriding goal of the project (to simplify the code);
  2. To examine each Rule to determine if it needs to be retained and if so whether any amendments are needed;
  3. To determine whether any new Rules (i.e., Rules covering items not currently addressed) are needed;
  4. To examine the Definitions to determine if each Definition is necessary and if so whether any amendments are necessary;
  5. To determine whether any new Definitions are needed;
  6. Given the results of the above, to determine the best structure and format for the revised code;
  7. To piece together the new code;
  8. To determine how many Decisions could be withdrawn and how many are needed to be added; and
  9. To state our conclusions.

We recognize that, in many ways, golf is different from other sports. For example, we can think of no other sport where education of that sport's rules is a priority of its governing body(ies). The USGA goes to great lengths to print and distribute (and make available electronically) the game's Rules and Decisions; to teach thousands of people each year about the Rules; to assign someone to the telecast booth in the U.S. Open, U.S. Women's Open and U.S. Senior Open to explain any Rules situations that arise (thereby not giving the television announcers the opportunity to spread incorrect information on the Rules of Golf); and to answer some 20,000 Rules inquiries (via email and telephone) each year. Why go to these lengths to promote Rules Education? A key reason is that, unlike many other sports where athletes are encouraged to see what they can "get away with," golf places the responsibility of playing by the Rules on the players, so it therefore becomes in each player's own interest to know the Rules (and thereby avoid any penalties or any unmerited advantage arising from ignorance of the Rules).

The reader should keep in mind that the two authors are both former USGA staff members and, as the previous paragraph illustrates, tend to be USGA-centric as that is where their experience lies.

Off we go!

David Hayes John Morrissett

February 22, 2012