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Preview of 2019 USGA Rules Changes

Links: USGA Rules Modernization Homepage | Full Explanation & List of Changes | Draft Edition of the Rules of Golf

March 1st, 2017 – Article and Photo courtesy of

The R&A and the USGA are pleased to announce a major set of proposed changes to the Rules of Golf. These changes result from our Rules Modernization initiative that began five years ago in an effort to bring the Rules up to date to fit the needs of the game today globally. This initiative had two guiding themes:

  • Even far-reaching Rule changes should be open for discussion, but golf’s essential principles and character must be preserved.
  • Revisions should be assessed with all golfers in mind, so that the Rules are easier to understand and apply not only for professionals and elite amateurs, but also for beginners, high-handicappers and typical club and recreational golfers at all levels of play around the world.

We hope that the proposed changes will be a major step forward in pursuing the following goals and objectives:

Overall Goals. We want the Rules of Golf to:

  • Be more easily understood and applied by all golfers;
  • Be more consistent, simple and fair; and
  • Reinforce the game’s longstanding principles and character.

Specific Objectives for Revising the Substance of the Rules. We want the new Rules to:

  • Use concepts, procedures and outcomes that are more intuitive and easier to learn;
  • Use a consistent approach for similar situations;
  • Avoid unnecessary concepts and exceptions that may create “penalty traps” for the player; and
  • Support broader objectives for the game, such as pace of play and environmental stewardship.

Specific Objectives for How the Rules are Presented. We want the revised Rules materials to:

  • Be written in a modern, plain style that uses more common words, shorter sentences and explanatory headings, and that ends the use of male-only references;
  • Be easier to translate into other languages;
  • Make greater use of visual aids such as graphics, photos and videos;
  • Clarify the purposes and principles underlying each of the main Rules;
  • Include a version of the Rules that is written from the player’s perspective and focuses on what the typical golfer needs to know; and
  • Use technology to make it easier to search and review the Rules, both on and off the course.

Given the unusual scope of this initiative, we want golfers and others in the golf community to have a chance to give us their feedback. We encourage you to review the proposed changes, to try them out on the course over the next few months, and to let us know your thoughts. We will consider all input as we continue our work to finish the new Rules by early 2018. We plan to put them into effect on January 1, 2019.

Summary of the Proposed Rule Changes

The proposed Rules modernization changes are broad in scope. We have looked at the entirety of the Rules, not just the larger issues or particular topics. We are proposing many small changes to make things easier to understand, reduce inconsistencies or improve outcomes. The full set of changes (organized by subject) can be found in Summary Chart: All Proposed Changes in Procedures and Outcomes in the New Rules of Golf for 2019. The major changes are found in Summary Chart: The Major Proposed Changes in the New Rules of Golf for 2019, which has links to videos or other visual illustrations and to the individual summaries found in Explanation for Each Major Proposed Change in the New Rules of Golf for 2019.

The major changes are also summarized here below, written in the style of the new Player’s Edition of the Rules – that is, with the focus on “you,” the player.

a. When Things Happen to Your Ball in Play

  (1) Ball at Rest Accidentally Moves

  • Accidentally moving your ball while searching for it: There is no longer a penalty.
  • Accidentally moving your ball or ball-marker when it is on the putting green: There is no longer a penalty.
  • New standard for deciding if you caused your ball to move: You will be found to have caused your ball to move only if that is known or virtually certain (that is, it is at least 95% likely that you were the cause).

  (2) Replacing a Moved or Lifted Ball

  • New procedure when you don’t know the exact spot where your ball was at rest: You must replace the ball on its estimated original spot (rather than drop the ball at that spot); and if the estimated spot was on, under or against growing, attached or fixed objects (such as grass), you must replace the ball on, under or against those objects.

  (3) Ball in Motion Accidentally Deflected

  • Your ball in motion accidentally hits you, your equipment, your caddie, someone attending the flagstick for you or a removed or attended flagstick: There is no longer a penalty (such as when your ball bounces off a bunker face and hits you).

b. Taking Relief

    (1) Dropping a Ball in a Defined Relief Area

  • Relaxed dropping procedure: The only requirement is that you hold the ball above the ground without it touching any growing thing or other natural or artificial object, and let it go so that it falls through the air before coming to rest; to avoid any doubt, it is recommended that the ball be dropped from at least one inch above the ground or any growing thing or object.
  • Defined relief area: The ball needs to be dropped in and played from a single required relief area (whereas today you are required to drop a ball in one area, it can roll away, and you need to re-drop if it rolls to any of nine specific places).
  • Fixed measures define the relief area: You use the fixed distance of 20 inches or 80 inches to measure the relief area (no longer using one or two club-lengths); this can readily be measured by using markings on the shaft of a club.

  (2) Lost Ball

  • Reduced time for ball search: A ball is lost if not found in three minutes (rather than the current five minutes) after you begin searching for it.

   (3) Embedded Ball

  • Relief for embedded ball in the general areaYou may take relief if your ball is embedded anywhere (except in sand) in the general area (which is the new term for “through the green”), except where a Local Rule restricts relief to the fairway or similar areas (this reverses the default position in the current Rules).

   (4) Ball to Use in Taking Relief

  • Substituting another ball: You may continue to use the original ball or substitute another ball, whenever you take either free relief or penalty relief under a Rule.

c. Special Rules for Specific Areas of the Course

    (1) Putting Green

  • Putting with flagstick left in the hole: There is no longer a penalty if you play a ball from the putting green and it hits the unattended flagstick in the hole.
  • Repairing damage on the putting green: You may repair almost all damage (including spike marks and animal damage) on the putting green (rather than being limited to repairing only ball-marks or old hole plugs).
  • Touching your line of putt or touching the putting green in pointing out target: There is no longer a penalty if you or your caddie does either of these things, so long as doing so does not improve the conditions affecting your stroke.
  • Replacing your ball if it moves only after you had already marked, lifted and replaced it: Anytime this happens on the putting green, you replace the ball on its spot – even if it was blown by the wind or moved for no clear reason.
  • Your caddie marks and lifts your ball on the putting green: There is no longer a penalty if your caddie does this without your specific authorization to do so.

  (2) Penalty Areas

  • Penalty areas expanded beyond water hazards: Red- and yellow-marked “penalty areas” may now cover areas the Committee decides to mark for this purpose (such as deserts, jungles, or lava rock fields), in addition to areas of water.
  • Expanded use of red penalty areas: Committees are given the discretion to mark all penalty areas as red so that lateral relief is always allowed (but they may still mark penalty areas as yellow where they consider it appropriate).
  • Elimination of opposite side relief option: You are no longer allowed to take relief from a red penalty area on the opposite side from where the ball last entered the penalty area (unless a Committee adopts a Local Rule allowing it). 
  • Removal of all special restrictions on moving or touching things in a penalty area: There is no longer a penalty if you touch or move loose impediments (such as leaves, stones and sticks) or touch the ground with your hand or your club in a penalty area.

  (3) Bunkers

  • Removal of special restrictions on moving loose impediments: There is no longer a penalty if you touch or move loose impediments in a bunker.
  • Relaxed restrictions on touching the sand with your hand or club when your ball is in a bunker: You are now prohibited only from touching the sand (1) with your hand or club to test the condition of the bunker or (2) with your club in the area right behind or in front of the ball, in making a practice swing or in making the backswing for your stroke.
  • New unplayable ball relief option: For two penalty strokes, you may take relief outside the bunker by dropping a ball back on a line from the hole through where your ball was at rest in the bunker.

d. Equipment You are Allowed to Use

  (1) Damaged Clubs

  • Use of damaged clubsYou may keep using any club that is damaged during the round, no matter how it happens (for example, even if you damaged it in anger).
  • Replacement of damaged clubsYou may not replace a damaged club, unless you were not responsible for causing the damage.

  (2) Damaged Ball

  • Substituting another ball for a cut or cracked ball: You may substitute another ball if your ball in play on a hole has become cut or cracked while playing that hole; but you are no longer allowed to change balls solely because the ball has become “out of shape.”

  (3) Distance-Measuring Devices  

  • DMDs allowedYou may use DMDs to measure distance, except when prohibited by Local Rule (this reverses the default position in the current Rules).

e. How You Prepare for and Make a Stroke

  • Expanded restriction on caddie help with alignment: Your caddie is not allowed to stand on a line behind you from the time you begin taking your stance until you have made your stroke.

f. Promoting Faster Pace of Play

  • Encouraging you to play promptly: It is recommended that you make each stroke in no more than 40 seconds – and usually more quickly than that – once it’s your turn to play.
  • Playing out of turn in stroke play (“ready golf”): This has always been allowed without penalty, and now you are affirmatively encouraged to do so in a safe and responsible way for convenience or to save time.
  • New alternative form of stroke play: The Rules recognize a new “Maximum Score” form of stroke play, where your score for a hole is capped at a maximum (such as double par or triple bogey) set by the Committee, so that you can pick up and move to the next hole when your score will be at or above the maximum.
  • Other changes to help pace of play: The simplified dropping procedure, reduced time for ball search, expansion of penalty areas, greater use of red penalty areas and ability to putt with the flagstick in the hole should all help pace of play as well.

g. Insisting on High Standards of Conduct and Trusting Player Integrity

  • Playing in the spirit of the game: New provisions are added to reinforce the high standards of conduct expected from all players on the course and the Committee’s discretion to disqualify players for serious misconduct.
  • Code of player conduct: Committees are given authority to adopt their own code of player conduct and to set penalties for the breach of standards in that code.
  • Elimination of need to announce intent to lift ball: When you have good reason to lift your ball to identify it, to see if it is cut or cracked or to see if you are entitled to relief (such as to see if the ball is embedded), you are no longer required first to announce to another player or your marker that you intend to do so or to give that person an opportunity to observe the process.
  • Reasonable judgment standard: When you need to estimate or measure a spot, point, line, area or distance under a Rule, your reasonable judgment will not be second-guessed based on later evidence (such as video review) if you did all that could reasonably be expected under the circumstances to estimate or measure accurately.

Limitations in Revising the Rules

Taken together, these and the other proposed changes should help achieve our Rules Modernization goals and objectives by:

  • Eliminating many restrictions (and thus eliminating many penalties) that have been perceived as unfair or unnecessary and/or that have required close and controversial judgments to be made;
  • Making various procedures easier to use, such as how to take relief and what to do when a club is damaged during play;
  • Using the Rules affirmatively to help address the pressing issue of pace of play; and
  • Reinforcing the game’s traditional emphasis on both expecting high standards of conduct from all players and trusting them to act honestly and reasonably.

But we know that there are limits in trying to achieve all of our goals and objectives, especially at the same time. This is for two reasons. First, golf is an inherently complicated sport. It is played outdoors in all types of weather, on non-standardized fields of play found in almost every type of landscape and human environment on the planet, and with people, animals, vehicles and a great many other objects regularly in the way. The game’s bedrock principles are simple – you are to play a ball from the tee until it ends up in the hole, and to play the ball as it lies and the course as you find it. But the number and range of things that can happen to a golf ball and a golfer during play are almost infinite. The result is a need for many reasonable exceptions to these principles and for procedures telling the player what can or must be done in a wide range of situations that inevitably arise. This leads to longer and more detailed Rules, as players understandably expect answers to all such situations.

Second, there is often a tension between pursuing simplicity (which may lead towards having absolute rules that are easy to apply but may produce outcomes that sometimes seem wrong or unfair) versus trying to achieve “fair” and “right” results (which may lead towards having exceptions and more complicated doctrines so that slightly different factual scenarios can have different outcomes). Some changes (such as elimination of certain prohibitions and penalties) may help achieve both objectives, but other changes necessarily go in one direction or the other. Our overriding goals in balancing these considerations were to do what seems best from the standpoint of all golfers and to preserve the fundamental challenge and essence of the game.