The cover of the 2016 Rules of Golf includes a simple yet powerful statement: “Golf is a global game and The R&A and the USGA have issued this single set of Rules to apply worldwide to all golfers.” In one sentence, the game’s two governing bodies have together reaffirmed a belief that the game of golf is best served by a single set of Rules. When we look to history, we are continually reminded of the wisdom of this approach.
The first known code was drafted by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith on March 7, 1744, and even though those original 13 Rules were created specifically for five holes, they were undoubtedly adapted to cover occurrences from the many rounds played at Leith Links. Just like our modern revisions, when unusual situations came up, some were deemed worthy of requiring a revision to their original 13 Rules. The first revision was formally adopted in 1758.
As the game continued to grow, many more clubs drafted their own rules of play. By the latter half of the 19th century, at least 20 unique codes had been drafted, some approximating previous codes, while others were altogether unique. It’s not hard to image the complications this created for a golfer invited to play at a neighboring club, which eventually led to clubs throughout the British Isles seeking out an overarching Rules-making body, The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.
At about the same time, across the Atlantic Ocean, the game was quickly gaining popularity throughout the United States. In 1894, the United States Golf Association was formed to administer national amateur championships for men and women as well as the U.S. Open. But what would a competition be without Rules? In stepped Charles Blair Macdonald, a driving force in the formation of the USGA who had first-hand experience with the challenges that multiple sets of Rules would present, having attended university in St. Andrews, Scotland, in the 1870s. As the association’s first vice president, Macdonald was instrumental in the USGA Executive Committee adopting The Royal and Ancient’s 1891 code on March 28, 1895.
While early USGA codes were nearly identical to The R&A’s codes, this did not last long. The first half of the 20th century brought increasing differences as the two ruling bodies mostly acted independently of one another. While not nearly as varied as club codes of the 18th and 19th centuries, complications arose based on differences in the Rules, once again leading to a call for unification.
In 1951, a contingent from the USGA traveled to the United Kingdom to meet with like-minded members of The R&A. Also in attendance, reflecting the increasingly global nature of the game, were representatives from both the Royal Canadian Golf Association and the Australian Golf Union. After 12 days of meetings in London and St. Andrews, the group agreed to a joint code, to take effect in 1952. Perhaps more important, the two governing bodies agreed to meet on a regular basis to ensure that future differences could be worked out in a joint setting.
Despite the joint 1952 code, disparities continued over the next 30 years (most notably, the distance-only variations in the 1960s). Though joint meetings helped to pull the two codes together, both governing bodies continued to produce their own interpretations through the issuance of Decisions. It was not until the reorganization of the Rules in 1984 that The R&A and the USGA issued their first joint Decisions book. This monumental task of merging hundreds of interpretations and agreeing to the language required many years, having begun in 1975 with both organizations starting in earnest in 1979.
Since that 1984 reorganization, there have been minimal changes to the Rules themselves, yet the governing bodies have continued to focus on their Decisions, which now number more than 1,200 and provide answers to questions never imagined by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith. As a result of this increasing complexity the organizations embarked on a fundamental review of the Rules in 2012, and while this review is ongoing, the work to date continues to remind us of the spirit that served the initial joint meetings of 1951. This spirit is evident every time you look to the cover of the 2016 Rules of Golf, where both organizations’ logos now stand side-by-side, reaffirming the belief encompassed by the sentence gracing the back cover:
“Golf is a global game and The R&A and the USGA have issued this single set of Rules to apply worldwide to all golfers.”
Craig Winter is the director, Rules of Golf & Amateur Status, for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.