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Through the Green: A new look for the Rules of Golf, part two


The USGA and R&A are proposing the largest makeover to the Rules of Golf in more than 30 years — changes that will take effect in January 2019. In my last column, in the June 2017 issue of GCM, I detailed the proposed changes that would affect the marking of water hazards and lateral water hazards, which will be referred to as “penalty areas” after the changes have been implemented.

Here are a few more adjustments to the Rules that have been proposed for 2019 and that will be of interest to superintendents. Some have been put forth to simplify existing rules, others in an effort to speed up pace of play.

Ball at rest moved

Now: If a ball (or ball marker) is accidentally moved by the player on the putting green, it is a one-stroke penalty, and the ball must be replaced. This is the controversial rule that Dustin Johnson became a victim of in the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

Proposed: A ball (or ball marker) that is moved accidentally on the putting green must be replaced, without penalty, regardless of the reason it moved. Although this has been introduced as part of the body of Rules in 2019, it was approved for use as a Local Rule in January 2017 and is in effect at many tournaments, including those on the PGA Tour.

Putting green repair and flagsticks

Now: Golfers can repair ball marks and irregularities caused by “old hole plugs” on the putting green.

Proposed: Almost any damage on the putting green can be repaired by the player, including spike marks.

Now: When a ball played on the putting green strikes the flagstick that has not been removed, a two-stroke penalty results.

Proposed: There is no penalty for striking the flagstick when a ball is played on the putting green. Some players may find this advantageous, particularly if they have a downhill putt.


Now: The player can’t remove loose impediments when the ball is lying in the same bunker.
Proposed: Loose impediments can be removed from the bunker at any time.

Now: If a player touches the sand with a hand or club before making a stroke in a bunker, it’s a two-stroke penalty.

Proposed: No penalty for touching the sand with a hand or club unless it’s done to test the condition of the sand, or in the process of making a stroke.

Dropping a ball

Now: When dropping a ball, a player holds the ball in front of them at shoulder height and drops within one (free relief) or two (penalty) club lengths of the point of reference; the player may use any club to measure the distance. The ball can then roll up to two club lengths away from the point where it strikes the ground and still be in play.

Proposed: The ball simply has to be dropped — any distance above the ground is OK, but the recommendation is that it be dropped at least 1 inch above the ground or any vegetation. If taking free relief, the ball has to land and stay within 20 inches of the reference point, as opposed to one club length. If taking a penalty drop, the ball must land and stay within 80 inches of the reference point or line, as opposed to two club lengths. Distances can be measured by using markings on the shaft of a club.

Ball search

Now: A ball is lost if not found within five minutes.

Proposed: A ball is lost if not found within three minutes. This is to encourage a faster pace of play.

Now: If a player accidentally moves their ball while searching for it, a one-stroke penalty results, and the ball has to be replaced. This often leads to the golfer (and their caddie) not looking for the ball.

Proposed: No penalty if the player accidentally moves the ball during the search. The ball must be replaced.

Golf course maintenance will obviously affect some of these changes more than others. There are additional Rules changes not presented here; to see them all, go to The USGA is asking for feedback on the Rules revisions, which can be done by sending an email to or by calling 908-326-1850 by Aug. 31.

Jack Fry, Ph.D., is a professor of turfgrass science and the director of the Rocky Ford Turfgrass Research Center at Kansas State University in Manhattan. He is a 20-year educator member of GCSAA.