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Our Experts Explain: Golf's New Rules in Action January 10, 2019 By Jamie Wallace, USGA

Webb Simpson benefited from a key change to the Rules during the first week of 2019. (USGA/Chris Keane)

After years of work, much discussion and debate, and six months of public feedback collected from golfers and officials around the world, 2019 has finally arrived and golf’s new Rules are in effect. The first events under the new Rules have been played, including the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. We now have examples of the new Rules in action in tournament play and want to use this opportunity to highlight how some of the changes played out in real time, focusing not just on those that will affect play on the PGA Tour, but on those that will impact the game at all levels.

Putting with the Flagstick in the Hole

This change certainly has garnered the most attention. At its core, the Rule change now says that you can putt from the green with the flagstick in the hole and there will be no penalty if the ball strikes the flagstick. Most notably, Bryson DeChambeau took advantage of this change and made several putts with the flagstick in the hole, but so did others, such as Gary Woodland in the video below. While this change may have been made primarily to help speed up pace of play, it also presents a new strategic decision that players will have to make during play. Putting with the flagstick in the hole might look odd to many golfers now, but look for it to become standard over the coming weeks and months.

The most important item to note about this new Rule is that the decision to either 1) have the flagstick left in the hole or 2) have the flagstick removed (which includes having it attended) must be made before the stroke. Bubba Watson highlighted this in a video (also below). Here, Watson clearly made the decision to have the flagstick removed (attended) before making the stroke, but the ball ends up striking the flagstick, which was intentionally left in the hole. In this particular situation, the player would receive a two-stroke penalty in stroke play or a loss-of-hole penalty in match play. If the flagstick was attended and the player’s ball somehow accidentally struck the flagstick (or the person holding it), there would be no penalty. The key distinction in whether there is a penalty here is whether the action was accidental or deliberate.

No Penalty for Ball Moved During Search

Under the old Rules, a player was penalized if they caused their ball to move during a search. This incentivized the player to let others search for their ball (while discouraging the player from searching) as there was no penalty if someone else, even another player, caused it to move. The new Rule recognizes that we want the golfer to find their ball quickly and also to have the opportunity to play their ball as it lies if they can find it. In a textbook example of why this change was made, Webb Simpson was searching for his ball in the third round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions when he stepped on a clump of grass and moved his ball. Because he was searching, he simply replaced the ball where it had been and played on without penalty.


Dropping from Knee Height

Another of the most significant changes in the new Rules, and the one that probably visually provides for the biggest change, is the new dropping procedure. The ball is now dropped from knee height and must both land in and come to rest in a specific relief area (either one or two club-lengths from a specific spot, depending on the Rule being used). The lower dropping height makes it more likely that the ball will come to rest in the relief area, and therefore more likely for the ball to be played from a spot close to its original location. The new dropping procedure also eliminates the nine re-dropping scenarios that previously existed in the Rules – now it simply needs to land in and stay within the relief area. Many players have asked about having the option to drop from anywhere between knee height and shoulder height. This would essentially undermine one of the main reasons this change was made, which is to eliminate most of the scenarios in which the ball would be need to be redropped.


Grounding Club in Penalty Area

Most golfers are used to “hovering” their club above the ground when preparing to play a ball from a water hazard. Going forward, however, that water hazard will be known as a penalty area and you will be free to ground your club behind the ball just like you do in most other areas of the course. You can also now take practice swings that touch the ground and move loose natural objects such as leaves and sticks. This change helps to make the Rules more consistent across different areas of the golf course. Note that bunkers are treated differently than penalty areas in the new Rules – click here for more information on bunkers.


Jamie Wallace is the manager of Rules education and digital content for the USGA. Email him at