You have probably noticed that with effect from January 1 the R&A and the USGA have made some alterations to the Rules of Golf. This update comes in a snazzy little booklet, complete with some colour illustrations. Like the more high-end European Tour events it’s sponsored by Rolex, albeit I should imagine at a fraction of the price. Some of the changes are, by golf-governance standards, pretty drastic.
Among the more notable are these five:
* The time permitted to find a lost ball has been reduced from five minutes to three
* Spike marks can now be repaired
* When dropping the ball this will now be done from knee-height
* There’s no penalty if a golfer accidentally brushes the sand with his/her club when making their backswing in a bunker
* The flagstick may now be left in the hole even when putting from on the green – if the ball hits the stick, there will be no penalty…although the rule does add “you must not try to gain an advantage by deliberately moving the flagstick to a position other than centred in the hole”. Spoilsports!
Probably it’s no surprise that the latter change is the one which has caused most comment. Speaking before the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the opening event on the 2019 PGA Tour, Justin Thomas said: “If I have an eight-footer to win a tournament, I couldn’t really take myself seriously if I kept the pin in. It just would be such a weird picture. If I have a putt I’m trying to make, that thing’s coming out.”
Speaking before the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the opening event on the 2019 European Tour, Tyrrell Hatton pretty much echoed that sentiment. “If I’m tapping in from a few inches or putting from 60 feet, I might leave the pin in. But from 10 feet feet it just wouldn’t look or feel right to me. I’ve seen a few guys doing it and it just looks weird.” That W-word again.
David Leadbetter, the eminent golf teacher, noted that it could be good for club golfers because it would speed up play, but he thought it wouldn’t catch on with tour players. “Maybe when they are putting downhill from a long distance and the pin might act as a bit of a backboard,” he added. “But watching a guy hitting a five-foot putt to win with the pin in the hole is not going to be a good look.”
Talking of appearances, for a period in the 1980s, when he was still in his prime, Seve Ballesteros regularly used to have his caddie tend the flagstick even when he had a putt of no more than six feet. He said this was to diminish the distraction caused by the crowds behind the hole, which sounded rather odd given that he was looking at his ball when attempting the putt, but for sure it did look weird. Fortunately, there was no record of a hapless caddie ever getting the stick stuck when trying to remove it, thereby possibly costing his boss penalty shots, but I can guarantee that was the main thought in the caddie’s mind while Seve was over the putt.
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