Code 2 Conclusions - December 17, 2012

On the completion of Code One (which was based on the 2012 Rules), we believed we had succeeded in making numerous changes that both improved and simplified the Rules of Golf. However, we were concerned that a golfer who had only occasionally opened a Rules book would snort and wonder where the changes actually were, as the code remained very similar to the current Rules in format and language. With Code Two, therefore, our goal was to make more radical changes to see where such an approach would lead us. As we both had an affinity for Code One, we were far from over-confident that we could deliver the goods with Code Two.

Much more thought went into the start of work on Code Two than did Code One, as there was the need and desire to develop an overall different approach to the Rules. After much discussion, we eventually settled on a version of a form of play that we believe is greatly under-appreciated in the United States — Stableford. Part of the great appeal of a points-based format is that it allows for large stroke-play competitions where players are not necessarily required to hole out (i.e., if you are having a bad hole, just pick up and earn no points for that hole). One of the major criticisms of golf in general these days is the time required to play, and this format would help speed things up a bit.

This points-based format would also allow for significant simplification of the Rules, and this is where we diverged sharply from the 2012 version of Stableford. In Code Two, the default penalty for many breaches became no points earned for that hole. This change allows for (1) the elimination of the current tiered stroke-play penalties that require the correction of an error to avoid disqualification (e.g., playing from outside the teeing ground in stroke play), (2) the simplification of a number of Rules (e.g., if you hit a ball out of bounds, you earn no points for that hole; no need to play a provisional ball (and all the confusion that comes with the provisional ball rule) and no need to hike back to spot of the previous stroke), and (3) less anxiety over proceeding incorrectly as the worst-case result would be not to earn any points for that hole (so we eliminated the complicated rule allowing the play of a second ball when in doubt as what to do).

This overall format change allowed for other changes, several of which promise to improve the pace of the game. For example, with the penalty for a lost ball becoming no points earned for that hole (the likely result if the player played under stroke-and-distance anyway), less significance can be attached to a lost ball, with one result being the reduction in the time allowed to search for a ball from five to three minutes.

After going back and forth on the matter, we ultimately decided that match play should remain a form of play recognized by the Rules of Golf as probably the majority of all golf is played at match play and there is no denying its thrilling aspects. However, we framed Code Two so that the only real difference between match play and stroke play is with the scoring as the actual play is much more similar. One sticking point was whether a player would need to earn at least one point to win a hole when his opponent was in his pocket, and we decided that would add an interesting twist. For example, if Ben is on his way to a 10 on a par-4, then Jim needs to score at least a 6 on the hole to win it; if Jim scores 7 or worse, the hole is halved.

This elimination of so many differences between match play and stroke play provides a simpler code, even though some "re-programming" would certainly be needed for long-time golfers. For example, in match play a player may concede a hole but not a stroke, thereby erasing a key difference between the two forms of play. (We are reminded of the USGA amateur championships where high school and college golfers who advance to match play and often play the first match of their careers at that point, sometimes never grasping the notion that it is socially acceptable, and even expected, to concede a two-inch putt.)

While it is safe to say that the general premise of Code Two (the points system) is not a new one (i.e., given that the Stableford system has been around since 1932), the changes to the other Rules that this overall format allows are indeed new.

One goal was to make the language of the Rules more conversational and less stiff, and this proved to be quite a challenge. We succeeded in some spots (e.g., Rule 1), but it was difficult to carry that same style over to the more detailed Rules (e.g., Rule 19). We did change some terms (e.g., "casual water" to the more self-explanatory "temporary water"). These 'prescriptive' rules will, we believe, always needs to be written in a style that outlines the prerequisites for use of the rule and the steps necessary to apply the rule properly.

To date, the Rules have occasionally spared the player who commits an error that results in a disadvantage to himself (e.g., current Rule 6-6d and a player who returns a higher score for the hole — he is stuck with the higher score, while a player who returns a lower score is disqualified). While this sentiment is understandable and player-friendly, it does add a wrinkle to the Rules as well as a philosophical inconsistency — following that line of thought, why, then, is a player still penalized if he drops and plays from a spot that is worse than where he was required to drop? To simplify matters, both technically and philosophically, we eliminated that distinction and provided for the same penalty on both sides of the error (e.g., Rules 4-2 (Handicap) and 4-6d (Wrong Score for Hole).

One frustration is that we were not able to contrive a way to simplify more the business of resuming play (proposed Rule 4-7). While we did simplify the discontinuance of play (essentially: tell the Committee that you discontinued play if you do so without their authority) and the lifting of the ball (allow the lifting of a ball whenever play is discontinued), we did not find much room to improve the procedure for resuming play. Proposed Rule 4-7d still seems more involved than it could be, but we are at a loss for how to improve it further.

One theme of Code Two is the focus on the actual stroke and not on the preliminaries. For example, the Advice Rule (Rule 6) prohibits only the exchange of suggestions regarding the stroke itself and not on the best line of play or strategy. Likewise, Rule 9-3 (Aids and Unusual Use of Equipment) prohibits the use of a swing aid only during the stroke (i.e., so it would be permissible to use a swing aid in practice swings or to use an artificial device to gauge conditions before the stroke). This narrower focus ensures that the Rules focus on the essence of playing the game (the making of the strokes) and not on the more nebulous matters that often led to complication and confusion.

One issue that proved to be more involved than we expected was the treatment of a moved ball (proposed Rule 15). At first we wanted to simplify the Rule considerably by providing for no penalty (but with a required replacement) when a ball at rest is moved by someone, as we questioned why there should be a penalty to anyone as long as the player ultimately plays from the correct place. However, we wound up modifying this position to provide for a penalty when the player (or his partner or either of their caddies) moves his own ball when not permitted, as otherwise there would be no incentive for the player to mark the location of his ball before lifting it and he would have carte blanche to clean the ball. This point demonstrated how each Rule cannot be looked at in a vacuum.

Another key change in Code Two is the simplification (we hope!) of the relief rules. We formalized a definition of "standard relief" that provides for relief options that are similar to those, in the current Rules of Golf, for water hazards and unplayable balls and used this new relief method for relief from obstructions and abnormal ground conditions as well. This change also removed the difficult concept of the "nearest point of relief" as it has the player just measure directly from the location of the ball (or spot where the ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard) and, in some cases, to place the ball more than once until he breaks free from the condition. While in many cases the player may need to place a ball more than once to achieve relief from the condition, we believe the increased simplicity more than offsets the additional acts of placing of the ball.

While we quite like the results that Code Two provides, we do wish that the general language could be simpler even still. While the insistence on the use of a points-based scoring system will involve quite a departure from the record books of the game to date, it is not a new system, as Stableford has been with us for 80 years. We pursued such a different form of play as it allowed the simplification of so many of the Rules — our ultimate goal.