Meeting on New Rules Eases Anxiety for Players, Officials

By Ron Driscoll, USGA

When Francisco Rivera of the USGA talked with players at the fifth Latin America Amateur Championship about whether they would attend Wednesday’s Rules meeting for competitors, he heard a common reply.

“When I asked them if they were coming, several said, ‘I need to go, so that I won’t be at a disadvantage to the other players,’” said Rivera. “There is interest in getting the Rules right.”

Many in the field of 108 players are competing for the first time this week under the Rules that took effect on Jan. 1. Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior managing director for Governance, addressed PGA Tour players two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and he joined Grant Moir, The R&A’s director of Rules, at Casa de Campo on Wednesday for the same purpose.

“When you step into those first couple of meetings, you’re sensing a little anxiety from a player perspective,” said Pagel. “And once we meet, you see the anxieties calm a little bit.”

Pagel and Moir emphasized to the group of more than 100 players and officials that the major impetus for the 2019 makeover of the Rules of Golf was to make them more user-friendly and sensible.

“We are trying to make them easier to understand, a bit more intuitive,” said Pagel. “As a player, when you encounter a situation, if you follow your intuition and the principles around the game, you’re going to lead yourself in the right direction.”

Pagel was encouraged by a conversation with one of the PGA Tour players at Kapalua two weeks ago.

“He had reflected on our meeting overnight,” said Pagel. “As he was preparing to play his first round, he told me, ‘You know what, it’s a lot of common sense and that’s a good thing. This is the way we need to go.’ I found that to be a great endorsement.”

After Moir and Pagel made their 30-minute presentation, they were joined by Rivera and The R&A’s Clare Hargan in taking questions from LAAC players.

“Out of 10 or so questions that I got, half of them were about what to do and what not to do in the bunkers and penalty areas,” said Rivera. “But I think the feedback period was very helpful.”

The fact that some of the early anxieties are being assuaged and players and officials are gaining confidence in implementing the Rules is no accident.

“It all boils down to the fact that we’ve had a dialogue and engagement about this for quite some time,” said Pagel. “They’ve known for the better part of a year what’s going to happen, and while they might not have taken a deep dive, they’re aware on the surface of some of the changes. Although this might be the first time that they’re playing under the new Rules, it’s not the first time they’re hearing about them.”

When Pagel let the word “hazard” slip accidently during the presentation – the term in the new Rules is “penalty areas” – he joked that he needed to fine himself a dollar for using the old jargon. That drew a chuckle from the audience. But even as everyone gets familiar with the 2019 edition, a few of the Rules warrant more consideration.

“I tell the players, ‘The one thing I really want you to know is the new drop procedure from knee height, which is designed to keep the ball in the penalty area,’” said Pagel. “Much of the rest of the work was about removing penalties, right?”

Some Rules officials – particularly on professional tours – were working at events through late 2018, and thus had little opportunity to leap forward to the new Rules until their holiday break. Now they are turning the page in earnest.

“We’re starting to equalize a little bit on knowledge, and I’m having a lot of healthy conversations with officials on in-depth topics,” said Pagel. “That’s a good thing, because that means everything on the surface, the most common stuff, people are quickly picking up on.”

Among the new things people are seeing on TV is players opting to putt with the flagstick in. It is jarring to the uninitiated, but not unexpected for the Rule makers. Pagel noted that, from the late 1950s into the 1960s, there was no penalty for hitting the flagstick if your ball was played from the putting green.

“That was changed to a penalty in 1968, I believe,” said Pagel. “One of the reasons it was changed then was the belief that leaving the flagstick in might create an advantage for the player. As we looked at it for 2019, the game has changed quite a bit: agronomic conditions have changed, the putting strokes that players make have changed, and we felt it was worth removing the penalty. Again, that is one where we’re in observation mode, and what we’ve seen to date has not surprised us at all.”

Pagel noted that part of the reason for changing the Rule was to speed up play, but that doesn’t mean that those who keep the flagstick in are going against the spirit of the Rule change.

“It doesn’t bother us to see a player leave the flagstick in from 10 feet away,” said Pagel. “It certainly would complicate the Rules if we tried to differentiate when you could leave it in based on distance from the hole. In my discussions with players, some say they don’t want it anywhere near the hole because it makes the hole look smaller, and other players think it makes the hole look bigger. Just as you have different styles with grips or with the takeaway, it’s personal preference.”

The bottom line as the Rules are implemented throughout the game would be, “When in doubt, ask.”

“As I told the players at Kapalua, I don’t fault them if they raise their hand to ask a question,” said Pagel. “They’re playing under considerable pressure, and they want to make sure to get it right. It’s a collaborative effort and we’re happy to be out there helping them and being part of the discussion at ground level.”

Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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