When golf participation began a noticeable slide in the early 2000s, the game’s ruling bodies did not accept the numbers as par for the course.

Instead, the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient  (the ruling body for all other countries besides the U.S. and Mexico) decided that the declining numbers were a distress signal.   

The game, they decided, was beginning to be perceived as too time consuming, too expensive, and too difficult.

There was not much that the rules-makers could do about the expense of the game, but several years ago they started planning the most sweeping overhaul of the rule book in golf history.

And, as of January 1, those new rules are in effect. 

“These changes are not a knee jerk project,” says Dave Podas, the head pro at the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles. “They’ve really made the rules more in line with how the everyday guy plays.”

“These changes are not a knee-jerk project.”
Dave Podas
Head pro at Bel-Air Country Club, Los Angeles

You could describe the rules as “relaxed,” which doesn’t appeal to those who fashions themselves as traditionalists. Go to the Golf Club Atlas and you’ll read some huffy comments: “Why not just count the number of strokes as one wishes?”

Podas anticipates a learning curve.

“Over the next 60 to 90 days, I’m going to be busier than I’ve ever been” he says. 

Play it as it lies

Originally, golf’s rules were simple: Play the ball as it lies, play the course as you find it. 

There were a grand total of just 13 specific rules when the first rulebook was written in 1744. Over the centuries, the rulebook expanded to 33 rules, under which there came to be a myriad of sub-rules.

Even PGA and LPGA Tour players are occasionally stumped—a situation that has played itself out on television in recent years as high-profile pros like Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods, Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson ran afoul of rules they either didn’t know, didn’t fully understand or did not know they had violated.

If even the pros get confused, reasoned the officials at the USGA and R&A, then imagine how the game must look to newbies. 

Not a good way to grow the game. 

In addition, some of the rules added unnecessary time to a game that, when played over 18 holes, was already taking more than four hours.

Player friendly

In 2017 the ruling bodies announced more than 20 significant rules changes that would be discussed and analyzed by all levels of golfers for a period of two years, with the final version of the changes to take effect on January 1, 2019. 

Primarily, these rules focused on removing overly harsh penalties for accidental infractions, and instituting new, more player-friendly procedures for balls hit into hazards, out of bounds or simply lost on the course.

As an example, in the 1960s, when taking relief from a hazard, a player used to be required to drop a ball over his or her shoulder without looking at the spot where the ball would land – to prevent a player from trying to leave the ball in a favorable lie. 

That was later eased – you could hold a ball straight out at shoulder height and watch where you dropped it. Beginning this month, golfers can hold the ball at knee height before letting go.

Local rule

The rules are now much more forgiving about touching or moving your ball accidentally – always a one-stroke penalty prior to the changes. Now you just put it back where it was and play on. 

Likewise, there’s no longer a penalty for hitting yourself, your partner, your bag, your cart, or even your own ball a second time with one swing—assuming you didn’t mean to do any of those things in the first place.

A valid email is required
The previous rule covering lost or out-of-bounds shots required you to return to the spot where the shot was played—the original walk of shame.

A local rule—which won’t be in use in pro events—even allows you to drop a ball in the fairway parallel to the area where you’ve lost your ball or hit it out of bounds. 

The previous rule covering lost or out-of-bounds shots required you to return to the spot where the shot was played—the original walk of shame.

If you join the USGA—a bargain at $25 per year; they even throw in a hat and a bag tag—you’ll be sent a copy of the updated 2019 rule book. 

The USGA also offers a complete rules app that can be downloaded free of charge. Two million printed copies of a user-friendly Player’s Edition of Rules of Golf will be distributed by the USGA to golfers in the U.S. and Mexico.