2019 Rules Changes Explained 0

Changes to the Rules of Golf in 2019

USGA’s and R&A Seek to Simplify, Speed Up Play

Changes to the Rules of Golf in 2019 are Mostly Common Sense

Changes to the Rules of Golf in 2019 take effect on Jan. 1, 2019. The changes are designed to make currently difficult questions easier to decide with consistency and to make some patently unfair outcomes fair.

The changes to the Rules of Golf in 2019 were agreed to by the USGA and the R&A, the two worldwide governing bodies, after several years of discussions on how to modernize the rules and make them more consistent and understandable.

Most significantly, the changes aim to speed up the game and make it more accommodating for new players.

On its website, the USGA breaks down the Changes to the Rules of Golf for 2019 and lays out their rationale for the changes. Now that we’re only a couple months from 2019, here they are in layman’s terms:

Ball Lost or OB

The USGA drafted a model local rule that may be adopted by clubs at their discretion. Under the model rule, if a ball is lost or hit out of bounds, at the price of two penalty strokes, the player can estimate where it was lost (an impenetrable thicket of bushes, for example) or the point where it is believed to have gone OB, then drop a ball.

The geometry of where to drop is as follows: Once that spot is identified, the player estimates how far that point is from the flagstick, then identifies the nearest point in the fairway that is the same distance from the flagstick. From that spot in the fairway, the player gets two clubs lengths on either side, plus the freedom to go back to someplace on a line away from the flagstick that is still “in the general area.”

This eliminates the need to go back to the spot of the previous stroke, which speeds up play. However, this proposed local rule can’t be invoked if (a) the player hit a provisional ball or (b) the ball is believed to have been lost in a hazard.

To be clear, this isn’t an actual global rule change. It’s only a model rule that local clubs are free to adopt.

The USGA and R&A said this model local rule isn’t intended for “higher levels of play, such as professional or elite amateur level competitions.”

Ball at Rest

There is no penalty for accidentally moving a ball while searching.

If you’re fumble-fingered, there is no longer a penalty for accidentally moving your ball or marker while marking and replacing it. Just replace it.

Why a Ball Moved

The burden of proof on whether a player caused a ball at rest on the green to move changes in the player’s favor.

In 2019, the assumption will be that a natural force caused a ball to move unless the parties know or are virtually certain (interpreted as 95 percent certain or more) that the player caused it to move.

Whatever the reason it moved, if a ball moves and the players cannot identify the exact spot where it was when last at rest, the player should estimate the spot.

In stroke play, there is no longer a penalty if your ball, while in motion, is accidentally deflected by you, your equipment, or your caddie, but you can be penalized if you position your bag as a backstop and the ball hits it, though.

Taking Relief

To address inconsistencies in how and where players take relief, a new procedure will be used. Instead of having to drop at an exact spot, in most situations relief will be taken within a “relief area” defined as either one or two club lengths no closer to the hole from the spot (based on the rule being applied) measured by using the player’s longest club other than a putter.

Taking a Drop

No longer will you have to drop a ball from shoulder height when taking relief. Instead, you’ll drop from knee height. This new height applies to all drops. This is designed to limit the likelihood of time-consuming multiple drops as the ball skitters outside the one- or two-club relief area.

To reduce the likelihood of a player getting too much relief (say, from a sprinkler head in the rough and dropping so as to play the next shot from the fairway), the total distance a ball can roll while taking relief is either one or two club lengths (based on the rule being applied). It used to be as much as three or four.

That’s more likely (though not guaranteed) to preserve the condition – rough, native vegetation, for example – where the ball came to rest. The drop is made from knee height and if the second drop rolls too far or nearer the hole, the player then places the ball anywhere within the relief area.

Looking for a Lost Ball

The time allowed to look for a lost ball is reduced from five minutes to three minutes to speed up play. Knowing there’s less time to search will increase the likelihood a player will play a provisional ball, which will speed up play.

Substituting a Ball

When taking relief, a player may switch balls. Previously, you had to play your next shot with the original ball. This allows a player to replace a ball that was scuffed while hitting a cart path, for example.

Embedded Ball

When a ball is embedded, instead of dropping as close as possible to the spot, and debating whether that was close enough, a player will drop from knee height anywhere within a club length no closer to the hole.

Taking Relief from a Lateral Hazard

If, after the drop the ball bounces and hits the player but stays within the two-club-length relief area (which sometimes happens on a slope as a player tries not to lose another ball in the hazard) that’s fine. Play it from there, if it’s still in the two-club-length relief area. If it bounces outside the relief area, it’s dropped a second time. If it bounces out a second time, it’s then placed. More on the word “hazard” in a moment.

More on a Marked and Replaced Ball that Moves

If the movement of a ball on the green occurs because of a natural force such as the wind, just replace the ball at its original spot. This only applies to a ball that has been marked and replaced. If your ball comes to rest on the green after an approach shot but is blown by wind into a bunker before you can mark it, tough luck.

Repairing Damage to the Putting Surface

The prohibition against repairing spike marks goes away, as does the all-too-frequent debate over what’s an old pitch mark and what’s a spike mark. Now, all damage (except for aeration holes and normal wear) can be repaired by a player, including damage made by animals, other players or maintenance staff.

Touching the Line of a Putt

This prohibition goes away, and the concept of allowing a player or caddie to touch the line of play is expanded to include almost any shot anywhere on the course, provided the player gains no advantage through caddie’s touching – vegetation for example.

Putting with the Flagstick In

A player can putt with the flagstick in and hit it with no penalty. You have the option of removing it, but if you’re ready to putt, not having to wait for another player to remove it will speed up play.

Say Goodbye to the Word ‘Hazard’

The term “hazard,”  as in water hazard and lateral hazard, goes away. Now they’ll be called “penalty areas” and the concept of a hazard is expanded to include non-water areas such as deserts, jungles and lava rock fields from which the Committee deems play would pose a safety hazard or where searching would slow play. As a result, expect more dry areas to be marked with red paint.

Playing from a Penalty Area

If a player chooses to play a ball that lies within what will no longer be called a hazard or a lateral hazard, touching the ground or leaves or vegetation before playing a stroke is OK. You’ll be able to ground your club and you can remove loose impediments with your hand.

A Relief Option Goes Away

No longer can a player take relief from a lateral hazard/penalty area at a point along the opposite margin of the hazard/penalty area that is equidistant from the flagstick. This goes away because clubs are expected to expand the use of dry penalty areas, and the USGA and R&A believe that retaining this relief option could lead to unfair advantages to the player in some cases. Still, the Committee can continue to allow the opposite-margin option as a local rule.

Touching the Sand

In a bunker, you can touch the sand while removing loose impediments, but you still can’t touch the sand with either your hand or club directly in front of or behind the ball, or touch the sand for the purpose of testing its consistency. Taking practice swings and hitting the sand with your club while doing so is still prohibited, as is touching the sand with your club during a backswing.

Taking Relief Outside a Bunker

If a ball is under a bunker lip or buried to the extent the player believes he won’t be able to extricate it, he can drop outside the bunker on a line away from the flagstick for the price of a two-stroke penalty. This new option is likely to be widely used by players who can’t get out of a bunker no matter how good the lie or how many swings they take, which will speed up play.

Distance-measuring Devices

Lasers and GPS devices can be used in a competition, provided the Committee has not banned their use in the competition by local rule.

Double Hits

The USGA and R&A apparently believe that the ignominy of a double hit is itself penalty enough, so there will no longer be a one-stroke penalty added on when it happens. The double-hit stroke will count as one stroke and just as now the ball will be played from wherever it ends up.


Caddies can mark or replace a ball on the green for their player, but they can no longer stand behind them to help them line up a shot. The prohibition starts the instant the player begins to take his stance.

Damaged Clubs

A player will be allowed to keep using and/or to repair any club damaged during a round, even if the player damaged it in a fit of anger. The DQ that formerly befell a player who unwittingly continued using a slightly damaged club goes away. A player who damages a club while, say, hitting from behind a tree trunk is allowed to replace the club during the round. But a player who damages a club in fit of anger, while being allowed to continue using it, can’t replace it.

Maximum Score

The Committee can establish a maximum score per hole – triple bogey or double par, for example – to speed up play during a stroke-play competition. This will speed up play and be a boon to beginning players by allowing them to pick up and move on.

Ready Golf

Playing out of order will be the new norm in stroke play so as to speed up play. Ready golf can be played in match play by agreement of the two competitors.

For You Club Throwers

The rule at the very front of the rule book that stresses player etiquette will be strengthened to include the words “misconduct” and “serious misconduct.” This will allow the Committee to define a local code of conduct based on the behavior norms of that club and assess penalties based on the code, including issuing a DQ for an act of serious misconduct.

Lifting a Ball

To speed up play, the requirement to announce to other players that you are lifting your ball when you’re allowed to do so by the rules goes away. But if you lift a ball for no good reason and can’t explain yourself to your playing partners you’ll be penalized one stroke.

Best Estimate

A player’s reasonable estimation of where a ball crossed a hazard, where the nearest point of relief is, what the line from the flagstick is, where the previous stroke was made from, and all other such estimations golfers typically make during a round will be accepted. That goes for marking and replacing a ball, thereby eliminating the flap over video replays that focus on minute discrepancies in the marking and replacing of a ball by a player.

Dan Vukelich, editor of New Mexico Golf News, is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Golf Travel Writers of America. Reach him at dan@newmexicogolfnews.com

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Dan Vukelich, former editor of ABQ Free Press and Sun Country Golf magazine, is editor of NewMexicoGolfNews.com. He's a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Golf Travel Writers of America. Reach him at dan@newmexicogolfnews.com

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