Swinging into spring

Tee to green, golfers should brush up on 20 new rules for 2019

To help with pace of play, rule adjustments include everything from putting with flagsticks in holes to relief from bunkers
By Ken Waltz | Mar 22, 2019

As Maine golfers look out their windows to watch the snow and ice slowly, but surely, melt, and pray the winter's frost leaves the ground in the coming days, those hardy, daydreaming links athletes, undoubtedly, will have visions of long drives and short birdie putts in their heads.

As they patiently wait for warmer temperatures — for spring to spring (sprung?) and have happy thoughts of no more snow — and courses to open, those eager golfers should remember 20 new rules have been instituted to their nearly 600-year-old game — all in the name of improving pace of play.

The game, in its "modern form," has been around since 1457 in Scotland, with general guidelines in place since 1744. The game is steeped in history and tradition. So rule changes do not come often. It may be the only game which essentially has an honor system, where the participants call penalties on themselves.

This "gentleman's" game follows strict rules to keep the playing field — make that course — equal for participates.

The rule changes have been instituted to make the game faster, a bit easier and, ultimately, more fun and attractive to help maintain and, hopefully, grow the game.

Click for summary of rule changes for 2019.

Click for rules through the years.

Longtime Rockland Golf Club PGA Professional Keenan Flanagan often states golf is difficult to master — no one really has, although a few have been close — and one of the most significant drawbacks is it also takes too long to play.

The new rules will not make the game easier — only lessons, practice and dedication to the sport will do that — but they should simplify what happens in certain situations and, above all else, make the game go more smoothly and efficiently.

Those who watch professional golf on television most certainly have seen the effects of the new rules — especially the unusual sight of the flagstick being left in the hole as some putt on the green.

The following is a condensed version of the changes to the rules of golf for the 2019 season:

• Search time for a lost ball is reduced from five to three minutes.

• If a ball is moved during the search, it can be replaced at no penalty.

• One can get free relief from embedded balls anywhere on the course.

• When measuring for a drop, one uses the longest club in the bag (except putter).

• When putting a ball back in play via a drop, the drop is from knee, not shoulder, height.

• Taking a stance on the wrong green is not permitted.

• If a ball unintentionally hits a player or equipment, there is no penalty.

• If one double-hits the ball, it is no penalty.

• Touching sand in the bunker incidentally is permitted. However, one cannot intentionally touch the sand with a club to improve stance, lie or impending swing.

• Loose impediments can be removed anywhere, including hazards.

• One can drop a ball out of the bunker, back on the line from the hole through where the ball was at rest, with a two-stroke penalty.

• Water hazards are now called "penalty areas."

• If a ball moves on the green after being marked, it may be replaced with no penalty.

• If a ball accidentally moves on the putting green, it may be replaced with no penalty.

• All damage to the green can be repaired. In the past, only ball marks and old hole marks could be repaired (not spike marks, etc.). Natural imperfections cannot be fixed.

• Positioning a club for alignment is not permitted.

• Caddies assisting with alignment is not permitted.

• Putting with the flag stick, or pin, in the hole is permitted.

• A ball wedged against the flag stick and side of the hole is deemed holed.

Flanagan, who said he attended a rules seminar in Orlando, Fla. in January at the PGA merchandise show and will do a follow up seminar at The Purpoodock Club in Cape Elizabeth, said "it is a little shocking that the [The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews] and the [United States Golf Association] would change so many rules in one year."

Flanagan said the rules "that stick out most that will involve players daily" are the decreased search time for a lost ball as well as dropping a ball at knee instead of shoulder height. He mentioned the double-struck ball no longer being a penalty, the change of name for water hazards, being able to repair all damage to greens and putting with the flagstick in the hole as rules golfers will encounter and implement most often.

"These, as far as I am concerned, are the top six out of 20 and will be used the most," he said.

Why the rule changes?

"These rules have been put into effect because of the pace of play at all golf courses," Flanagan said. "They are hoping that this increases the speed of play daily. This is due to 23 million golfers quitting the game in the last three years nationwide."

He said the number one reason people don't play golf is it takes too long. "By the time you drive to the course, play a four-hour round, get something to eat and drink, you are looking at six hours minimum out of your day."

Flanagan said pace of play at RGC has never been an issue. In fact, sometimes golfers play the course too quickly, he said. "We are the home of the 3 1/2-hour, 18-hole round."

From a golfer's perspective, albeit one who has been perhaps more successful than any amateur in Midcoast history, Ricky Jones of Thomaston said it will be interesting to see how the new rules affect play — especially in tournaments.

Jones, a multi-time Maine Amateur champion and one of the best amateur players in the country over the years (years ago he even beat Dustin Johnson, now the world's No. 1 pro golfer, in an amateur match), looks forward to playing with the new rules.

"I’m not sure there is anything there that will change how I play or approach the game," said the Samoset Resort Golf Club member, who participates in prestigious tournaments around Maine, New England and sometimes the country. "The biggest benefit I see for myself is that you can repair spike marks on the green. Given current tournament conditions for speed of greens (grass cut really short), spike marks or shoe damage can really effect the roll of a putt."

Jones said how the new rules affect tournament golfers compared to recreational golfers might be slightly different.

"I do like some of the changes of the more obscure rules that most recreational/club golfers might not know anyway," he said. "For example, I’ve played in club tournaments and had to call penalties for grounding a club in the hazard, now there is no penalty. No more explaining penalties if the ball hits the lip of the bunker and rolls back and hits your shoe."

And, further more, "For someone that accidentally hit his ball in a tournament on the putting green last year, I do like the fact no penalty and replace."

Jones said he wonders why one now has to drop the ball from knee height. "I think they should of made it simple and said knee height or above. The majority of time it would be more beneficial to drop from knee height, so why does it matter if you drop it from shoulder height, you are not gaining an advantage."

And, perhaps the most noticeable change, does Jones like the flagstick in or out when putting on the green.

"I originally liked the flagstick rule because how many times have you been 40 feet away and had to wait for someone to take the flagstick out or have someone tend the flagstick? he said. " I didn’t even realize people might keep the flagstick in on five-foot putts. Given that most amateurs don’t have caddies, if you get a group that each person prefers a different way, you could be taking the flagstick in and out several times on the putting green. I’m really interested to see how it plays out this year in tournaments."

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