For the good of the game

The recent proposal of modernized golf rules, set to take effect in 2019, may have absolved Lexi Thompson from a four-shot penalty that cost her a major.

Over the last few months, the Rules of Golf have certainly been in the spotlight. Though most discussions involving the rules have been positive, mostly due to the game-changing announcement on March 1 by golf’s governing bodies that proposed changes to take effect January 1, 2019, there have also been a few widespread groans from golf fans regarding rulings at the professional level.

The most recent of which transpired during the final round of the LPGA Tour’s ANA Inspiration. Walking to the 13th tee with a two-stroke lead, Lexi Thompson was informed by LPGA officials that she would be receiving a four-stroke penalty for incorrectly replacing her ball during the third round.

With just six holes left to play and a huge emotional swing, the American displayed true sportsmanship and poise, fighting back to eventually lose in a playoff. The event drew numerous headlines with many players, coaches and media vocalizing their opinion about the seemingly unfair result, which ultimately cost Thompson a chance to win her second major.

It needs to be said that, based on the current rules, the LPGA Tour applied the penalty and dealt with this unfortunate situation correctly. The tour became aware of a potential infraction through a viewer email after Thompson made the turn on Sunday.

As a Committee, it was obligated to review footage to find out if she did in fact replace her ball in a wrong place. Under Rule 16-1b, a player is allowed to mark the ball on the putting green and she must replace it on the same spot. After carefully reviewing video evidence from the 17th hole of Thompson’s third round, she had indisputably placed the ball in a slightly different spot.

The silver lining for Thompson was that this is no longer results in a penalty of disqualification. In 2016, there was a narrow exception added to Rule 6-6d that was meant to cover a situation exactly such as this.

It states that, “If a competitor returns a score for any hole lower than actually taken due to a failure to include one or more penalty strokes that, before returning his or her score card, she did not know she had incurred, she is not disqualified.” In Thompson’s circumstances, she incurred a two-stroke penalty under Rule 16-1b for not replacing her ball correctly and an additional penalty of two strokes for signing an incorrect score for the 17th hole.

Viewer call-ins and specifically, video evidence, have been a part of the ongoing Rules Modernization Project discussions as the governing bodies prepare an updated code for 2019.

But rather than waiting for the end of this rules cycle, the bodies put into immediate effect a decision to absolve players from infractions, firstly, when video reveals evidence that could not reasonably be seen with the naked eye and, secondly, when players use reasonable judgment to determine a spot, point, line, area or distance.

These standards recognize that a player should not be held to the degree of precision that can sometimes be provided by video technology. It will still be a matter for the Committee to make a determination whether any potential rules breaches could have reasonably been avoided when situations like this arise and when the new rules take effect in 2019.

The 24-rule proposal, reduced from the current 34, has been written in a user-friendly style with shorter sentences, commonly used phrases, bulleted lists and explanatory headings. The joint initiative, intended to make the rules easier to understand and apply, also focuses on assessing the overall consistency, simplicity and fairness of the Rules of Golf for play.

A few highlights of the proposed changes include:

How to drop a ball
Players will be able to drop a ball from any distance above the ground, provided it doesn’t touch anything and falls through the air when dropped.

Time for ball search
Three minutes will be the new maximum allotted time to search for a ball, rather than the current five minutes.

Repairing spike marks
Players will be allowed to repair spike marks and any other damage done by shoes, damage from a club and almost all other damage on the putting green.

Leaving flagstick in the hole
Players will be allowed to leave the flagstick in the hole on the putting green without penalty.

Relaxed rules in penalty areas
Players are allowed to ground their club and move loose impediments in a penalty area (an expanded concept of water hazards).

To review the proposed changes in more detail and submit your own feedback to the R&A and click here.

To do the same with the USGA click here.

Spring_2017_Cover_ENThis article was originally published in the Family Issue edition of Golf Canada Magazine. Click here to view the full magazine