Horror of Horrors — the Rules of Golf are Changing!

The two worldwide governing bodies of the game of golf are the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A) and the United States Golf Association (USGA). The two bodies have agreed on a proposed set of 100 changes intended to simplify the rules, and make them easier to apply, and update them to “meet the changing needs of the global game.” These changes, after a lengthy review period, are scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2019. I’m actually just joking with regard to the title – many of the rules as they currently stand are archaic, unwieldy, and confusing. Let’s face it, if the governing bodies can come up with 100 changes to the rules, the rules are too complicated.

U.S. Open - Round Three

Moving loose impediments in a sand trap will be allowed

Hero World Challenge - Final Round

The procedure for dropping a ball is changing

I expect the true motivation for these changes is the fact that golf’s popularity among the masses has fallen off a cliff. Contrary to predictions of an explosion in the number of new players and the subsequent worldwide expansion of golf courses, it turns out the millennial generation just isn’t interested. Apparently, the youngsters would rather play golf video games than actually play golf. On the heels of the recent golf course construction boom, courses are now closing at an unprecedented rate.

Many theories have been put forth to explain this decline of the venerable old game. Some people decry the supposed exclusivity of the game and celebrate its demise as an overdue victory for egalitarianism. The historical and shameful exclusion of minorities by golf clubs supports this argument. I would argue that this aspect of the game is primarily an artifact of the private clubs preferred by the very wealthy, such as Tweeter in Chief’s Mar-a-Lago, and that the decline has more significantly impacted the public courses preferred by ordinary Joes like myself. Others point to the vast and wasteful amounts of land and water devoted to golf courses, along with hidden public funding in the form of tax policies. Yet the same critics frequently celebrate other methods for preservation of green space that are often no better in terms of resource allocation. Many argue that the monetary cost for playing the game has become too high, even as they spend far more money attending football games and concerts, dining out far more frequently than they used to, and buying expensive smartphones and other gadgets. There’s also a sizable contingent that believes the game is just too complicated – hence the proposed rules changes.

To me, the obvious reason for the decline in popularity is that the game is too slow, not that it’s too expensive or too complicated. Put another way, people now value their time far more than they used to. To play eighteen holes on a weekend can take an excruciating five hours on a typical course, or even six hours at the more difficult venues. That doesn’t even include the time for transportation to and from the course. Think of all the things a modern man or woman could do with those precious hours – countless tweets, posts, on-line games, a couple of movies, bringing the kids to several soccer matches or school activities, etc. etc. etc. Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t even have imagined there could be so many more important things to do with those hours. I think it may not have been so slow in the old days also, but I can’t be sure of that due to my failing memory. Older and retired folks like me have more time to spend on a game like golf, so older and retired folks like me are the ones still playing the game, while the younger crowd is abandoning it in droves.

I don’t play often during weekend prime time myself because I can’t abide the slow pace of play. I try to go on weekdays or off-times, and I can usually manage to play eighteen holes in three hours or less. If I get lucky and no one else is on the course, I can do eighteen in an hour and a half with a cart or two to two and a half walking. So why does it take everybody else so long? The typical player takes five or six practice strokes before every shot. He or she then stands at address, sometimes motionless, sometimes twitching and waggling, for a virtual eternity, before endeavoring to actually hit the ball. Meanwhile, the player’s companions stand together in a knot, offering sage advice or off-color jokes but making no effort to move toward their own balls. Finally, our erstwhile champion strikes the ball. The group then watches en masse until they think they know where the ball ended up, then moves off in a herd to the next player’s ball, where the scene is repeated. The wily Scottish sheep farmers who invented the game didn’t play that way. They simply hit the ball, went to find it, and then hit it again.

Mercifully, many of the new rules actually may actually result in a faster pace of play. For example, the time allotted to searching for a lost ball is shortened from five minutes to three. “Ready golf” is encouraged “when it can be done in a safe and responsible way” rather than strict adherence to an order dictated by distance from the pin. The penalty for striking the flagstick when putting is eliminated, so there will no longer be a need for the rigmarole associated with attending the pin. Do I think the changes will result in rounds being played in less than four hours? I doubt it. After all, hardly anyone actually follows the rules now, so why would I expect they’ll change their behavior after the new rules take effect?

At any rate, I’m fine with the rules changes. I think the net result will be a slight lowering of scores since several penalties have been eliminated, and possibly a quicker pace of play. However, there is one change that makes me very sad, indeed. As some of you know, I am the author of several golf-themed mystery novels with catchy names based on time-honored jargon of the game. My most recent effort is titled Lateral Hazard, just released in February 2017. Under the new rules, terms for some of the areas on the golf course are being changed. In keeping with those changes, I would need to retitle my book Penalty Area Allowing Lateral Relief. Somehow that doesn’t work for me. Wouldn’t you know it – I write a new book and the rules of golf, which haven’t changed in decades, have already made it non-compliant. Unless, of course, everyone buys it before January 1, 2019!

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