David Rickman, The R&A’s Director of Rules and Equipment Standards, discusses the changes

The Rules of golf, like the wider game itself, are constantly evolving. For the Rules of Golf 2012-15, a total of 101 proposed changes were considered. These ranged from the very minor - improved grammar or changes to cross-references - to some that would have resulted in fundamental changes to the way the game is played.

David Rickman, The R&A’s Director of Rules and Equipment Standards, talks through some of the key changes and others that were considered but ultimately did not make the cut.

Q. What in your view are the big changes for 2012-15?

A. The two changes I would highlight are the Rules concerning smoothing sand or soil in a hazard and the ball moving after the player has addressed it. With regard to the first of these, this is really about raking bunkers before playing from that same bunker. We are still prohibiting players from testing the condition of the bunker or from improving their lie or line of play, but we are now allowing a player to, say, rake a footprint somewhere else in the bunker. What we are trying to do is enable people to tidy the bunker up in accordance with the etiquette section of the Rules and at the same time help speed up play a little and avoid unnecessary penalties.

In terms of the second big change, we have amended the rule on a ball moving after address. This is a particular issue on very windy days. We most often see this on the putting green. In the past, if the ball moved after address, irrespective of the true cause of the ball moving, the player would be penalised. From 2012 onwards we have a specific exception that says that if you can effectively prove that something else has caused the ball to move, most likely a gust of wind, then there will not be a penalty and the ball is played from its new position.

Q. Has this been influenced by some of the high profile cases we have seen in recent years from professional golf?

A. Yes. The wind issue was brought into sharp focus during the 2008 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, where we had a very windy Championship. Despite the best efforts of the green-keeping staff in terms of course set- up, the tolerance and patience of the players, it was a real struggle to complete the Championship in a timely and fair way. We also had another windy Championship at St Andrews in 2010. That said, it would be wrong to suggest that it is only about what happens at these Major events, but all of this pointed to a concern that if the ball does get blown by the wind, which happens on courses across the world, it would be inappropriate to continue to penalise players in these circumstances.

The most recent high-profile case we had was at the 2011 Open Championship with Rory McIlroy during the final round. He addressed the ball and quite clearly a gust of wind moved it. He was penalised, he accepted the penalty but if that were to happen next year then there would be no penalty.

Q. The time of starting has also changed?

A. Time of starting is a good example of the Rules evolving over time. The traditional long-term penalty has been disqualification if you fail to arrive on time. But in the last 20 years or so we have had a condition that many competition organisers have introduced which modifies that disqualification penalty to loss of the first hole in match play or two strokes at the first hole in stroke play. The change for 2012 takes it to the next stage and introduces this modified penalty as the general rule. So in all circumstances, in whatever competitions you play, there is now a five minute window where it’s obviously not great to incur a penalty or lose the first hole, but at least you are not disqualified.

Q. Earlier this year we saw the retrospective disqualification of R&A - Working for Golf Ambassador Padraig Harrington after a viewer watching on HDTV spotted his ball move as the marker was removed. How did you respond to that?

A. We had been concerned for some time that, in certain limited circumstances, disproportionate disqualification penalties have been required by the Rules.  The case involving Padraig Harrington in Abu Dhabi in January this year (where he accidentally caused his ball to move on the putting green with his finger in the act of removing his ball-marker) was the latest in a series of Rules incidents where disqualifications have been caused by score card errors identified as the result of recent advances in video technologies.

In particular, we were concerned about cases where a player is not aware he has breached a Rule because of facts that he did not know and could not reasonably have discovered prior to returning his score card. In these limited circumstances, players have little if any protection against a breach of the Rules escalating into a disqualification and, therefore, it was decided that an immediate change of interpretation was required.  The revision to Decision 33-7/4.5 was announced on 7 April 2011 and was effective immediately.

Q. In what other ways has technology forced you to re-examine the Rules?

A. The popularity of the MP3 player has raised the question of whether a player can listen to music while playing a round of golf. It is a question, which was given serious consideration, and is clearly one we would not have faced 30 years ago. Aside for the culture of the game and the tradition of interacting with one’s playing partners, we felt that some advantage could be obtained from its use. For example, cocooning one’s self by listening to music could aid concentration and help shut out external distractions faced by other players. Accordingly, a new Decision for 2012 states that listening to music while making a stroke or for a prolonged period during a round, is a breach of Rule 14-3, the penalty for which is disqualification.

Q. Did anything else receive extensive consideration during the last Rules cycle?

A. Many issues return time and again but the two that stick out in my mind from this review are the Rules governing the unplayable lie and a proposed reduction in the time allowed to search for a lost ball from five to three minutes.

If you decide your ball is unplayable you currently have three options. Under penalty of one stroke, you can; replay your last shot, drop a ball within two club lengths no nearer the hole or go back directly in line with the flag as far as you want and drop a ball. The proposal was that if a player decides to play the ball as it lies, but subsequently fails to get the ball into a playable position, he would be allowed to return to any of the positions from which he had previously played a stroke on that hole. The thought was that this would allow someone to complete their round when otherwise they would be forced to record a no return. After much debate it was decided that we should not introduce the change. It was felt that it was getting technically very complicated and that golf is ultimately a strategic game, there are times you have to take decisions and live with the consequences. Put that together with the possibility of slowing play and confusing a reasonably well-understood rule, it was deemed to be an unnecessary change for what is a rare situation.

With the proposed reduction in time allowed to search for a lost ball, it was a concern over unintended consequences that informed our thinking. The five minute rule is one most golfers know and has been in place since 1891. For this reason any change would have to offer a clear improvement. The initial thought and motivation behind the change is that it would save time. However, we were quick to realise it could have unintended consequences. A player who has not played a provisional would have to take a long, time consuming, walk back to the tee after three minutes when the ball may have been found after looking for three and a half minutes. There is no conclusive answer but to amend a fundamental, historic and well-known rule we need to be wholly convinced it would be an improvement.

Q. Are these potential changes now off the table for good?

A. Not at all. The Rules are constantly evolving and under continual review. The four-year cycle starts now and I have little doubt that the regular questions will be asked again. Watch this space!


Click here to view the principal changes to the new Rules of Golf 2012-2015 and here to view the principal changes to the new Rules of Amateur Status 2012-2015.