Becky Dengler knew some changes were needed in the game of golf. And the head pro at Ed Oliver Golf Club in Wilmington, Del., wasn’t alone. A May 2018 study of Golf Participation in the U.S. by the National Golf Foundation found that nearly a million fewer people golfed in 2017 (23.8 million) than in 2013 (24.7). Though millennials have started to embrace the game in larger numbers, study results showed that the average age of those on the links was 43.5.
To maintain golf’s popularity, something had to be done. Last fall, the U.S. Golf Association released the results of its 18-month project with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland. The striking announcement included the most sweeping rules changes in more than 60 years.
“I’m a little shocked they did this,” says Dengler, who’s been a member of the PGA and LPGA for more than 25 years. “I understand why. It seems like they’re gearing things toward making the game friendlier to the everyday person.”
Perhaps the biggest change is the time it takes to complete an 18-hole round. In a society where people—especially tech-savvy younger folks—expect things to be quick and for whom a four-plus-hour round can be too long, the new rules simplify things on the course. They also work to make golf more accessible and potentially swifter. “I definitely think most of the changes have the same sort of theme, and that is pace of play,” says Chris Wilkinson, head pro at Llanerch Country Club in Havertown. “Nearly every change has pace-of-play implications.”
One of the most obvious changes has to do with the time someone is permitted to look for a lost ball. Previously, players had five minutes. Now, they have three. Some might try to maximize the situation by waiting for other members of their foursome to come over and help—a tactic that could increase the amount of time spent. But overall, the change should speed things up, particularly for less skilled players who spray tee shots into wooded areas.
Another rule change has to do with the height from which a golfer must drop a ball, should it find its way out of bounds or into an area that is unplayable. Before, the ball was dispatched from shoulder height. Now, it will fall from the knee, a compromise from the original idea of just a few inches off the ground. The goal is to make sure the ball doesn’t wander outside of the two club-length drop zone. “In the past, people caught dropping from shoulder height could be penalized,” says Michael Tobiason, head pro at Deerfield Golf Club in Newark, Del. “There was little room for error.”
Before, a golfer who inadvertently moved his or her ball on the green could be penalized. Now, the player can just put the ball back and carry on.
Another rule that has already drawn some criticism from professionals involves the flagstick. Previously, players had to remove the stick in order to putt. Now, they may keep it in, the better to facilitate fast play and end the back-and-forth that took place as golfers on and off the green took their shots.
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“It’s not that much of an advantage to have the stick in,” says Merion Golf Club head professional Scott Nye. “If two people are playing and they’re both 45 feet from the hole in different directions, one had to go and remove the flagstick. Now, one can putt while the other can get ready. If somebody hits a shot from off the green to within a foot of the pin, he can tap in without having to take the stick out.”
In another effort to speed things up, the USGA and R&A decided to let people who hit balls out of bounds off the tee to drop between the starting point and where the ball was thought to exit the playing area. There is a two-stroke penalty, but the golfer doesn’t have to return to the tee to hit a provisional, which can save a lot of time.
Other less common rules changes include eliminating the penalty if a golfer happens to hit the ball twice on the same stroke. “It’s a freak occurrence,” Dengler says. “So we can ignore it.” Also, if a player gets frustrated and throws a club in anger during a round, there’s no penalty—unless, of course, you wrap a nine-iron around a tree.
Finally, an embedded ball may be removed and replaced “in the area,” unless it’s buried in the sand. Then, it must remain. “That’s a no-brainer,” Dengler says. “They’d been penalizing people for wet conditions.”
The upshot should be swifter rounds and—the USGA hopes—more people looking to hit the links.
“We have to find ways to get people around the golf course a little quicker,” says Tobiason. “When golf was first created, it was for the ultra-rich, and the idea was for them to go out for a whole day. With young professionals, time is precious. They can’t be away from the house for six hours. If rounds took 3.5 hours, rather than 4.5 or five, you would see more people.”