Through the Green: A brave new world for the Rules of Golf

Several of the changes taking effect Jan. 1 apply to course conditions and should be on superintendents’ radars.


Filed to: Rules of Golf

Photo by NordWood Themes/Unsplash

At midnight on Dec. 31, while you welcome in 2019, the newly overhauled Rules of Golf will officially take effect, ushering in a new era for the game. For me, that means I’ll watch the ball drop in Times Square on TV at 11 p.m. (Central time) and then roll over and go to sleep.

In 2017, the USGA and R&A proposed an overhaul to the Rules of Golf in an effort to simplify them. I outlined some of the proposed changes last year in the pages of GCM (see A new look for the Rules of Golf from the June 2017 issue, and A new look for the Rules of Golf, part two from the August 2017 issue).

For superintendents, the most significant of these changes is that water hazards will no longer exist. Well, at least they’ll have a new name. Water hazards will now be referred to as “penalty areas.” Just as we used to mark water hazards (yellow stakes and/or paint) and lateral water hazards (red stakes and/or paint), penalty areas are marked yellow or red as well.

Ultimately, those who handle marking the golf course have the option of treating these areas just as they have in the past or doing things a bit differently. In the past, water hazards and lateral water hazards could only be marked in areas where water was present, or at least areas that periodically contained water. The difference now is that penalty areas can be extended to areas that don’t include water. For example, a tall grassy area, a forested area or a desert might be marked as a penalty area. This means that golf courses can be more liberal with the areas that they mark.

Let’s hypothetically say there’s a forested area on the left side of a par 4 with a dogleg left. Drives from the tee commonly end up in this area, which results in slowing of play because of golfers searching for their ball. This could be an area that a course committee may now consider marking as a red penalty area, which would allow golfers to proceed as they do now with a lateral water hazard. This would eliminate the requirement for playing a provisional ball, going back to the tee if a provisional ball weren’t played, or searching for the ball.

The superintendent should have input on new areas of the golf course that are proposed penalty areas, as this will ultimately require more labor, stakes and paint to keep these areas marked.

With penalty areas potentially requiring that more lines be painted on the course, superintendents may want to consider using an alternative to aerosol paint cans for marking lines. Using a backpack applicator to apply paint in bulk may allow for savings in paint. Furthermore, including a growth regulator with paint in the backpack applicator can extend the period of time that the penalty area lines are visible up to two weeks longer than using paint in an aerosol can (see “Mowing heights and the Rules of Golf” on Page 78 of the June 2016 issue of GCM).

Several other Rules changes are related to the condition of the golf course, and the superintendent should be aware of them. For example:

  • Loose impediments can now be removed by the golfer before playing a stroke in a penalty area or bunker.
  • When a golfer searches for a ball and accidentally moves it, there is no penalty, and it can be replaced.
  • Spike marks and other irregularities on the green can be repaired before putting.
  • The flagstick can be left in the hole, and there is no penalty if a putted ball strikes the flagstick.

Finally, there is now a local rule available that, when in place, avoids the stroke-and-distance procedure for golfers who lose a ball after striking it off the tee or who hit it out of bounds. This, too, is an effort to speed up play. Briefly, the golfer finds a spot on the edge of the fairway equidistant to the flagstick from where the ball was believed to be lost or crossed the out-of-bounds line, drops the ball in the fairway at that point, and adds two penalty strokes before playing the next shot.

As a superintendent, you manage the playing area for the game. As such, you should be aware of the Rules the players are required to follow. I recommend you visit the USGA’s Rules of Golf hub to learn more about the new Rules. Better yet, there’s an app for this — download the USGA’s Official Rules of Golf through iTunes or Google Play.

Jack Fry, Ph.D., is a professor of turfgrass science at Kansas State University’s Olathe Horticulture Research and Extension Center in Olathe, Kan. He is a 22-year educator member of GCSAA.