Reviewing the Rules of Golf

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

I often use the old ‘painting the Forth Railway Bridge’ analogy when asked to describe the process involved in reviewing the Rules of Golf. From the moment we launched the last edition of the Rules in October 2008, work began on the new Rules of Golf for 2012-15.

The first task is to return to any deferred items and the set of perennial Rules questions that are always worthy of re-examination. For example, the rules governing flooded bunkers (if you are unable to drop the ball in a dry part of the hazard and decide that the shallowest part, not nearer the hole, is an unattractive option, a one-stroke penalty drop out of the bunker must be taken) have been looked at time and again. It is a rule that I appreciate many feel is unfair, however, we are yet to find a better answer than the rules we have at present. Do you allow a player to drop in the nearest alternative bunker, which could be hundreds of yards away? A free drop seems overly generous and patently unfair on fellow-competitor or an opponent who has skilfully avoided the hazard.

This debate is but one of many to be had by the Rules Committee, which is made up of 12 members from The R&A and 12 advisory members from around the world.  We invite all our affiliated unions to make suggestions to improve the Rules and the result of these consultations form the basis of a review agenda. In addition, suggestions are received from other interested parties, including ordinary golfers. These suggestions range from the miniscule to fundamental points of principle. All suggestions, irrespective of where they have come from, are given careful consideration, with only those exhaustively reviewed in the recent past, those that are clearly impractical or patently absurd being discounted at this stage.

It is for R&A staff to carry out the initial review and present suggestions to the committee, which meets four times a year. Our review is guided by two underlying concepts.

Firstly, that all suggestions are properly considered in context and in conjunction with the wider rules. Each rule is like a piece of a jigsaw. There is always a risk of changing the individual piece to such an extent that it does not fit with those around it and we create further problems. For example, it may seem unfair to many that a good drive can be “rewarded” with a terrible lie in a fairway divot hole, a position for which I have sympathy. That said, to offer free relief would require a fundamental change in the ‘play the ball as it lies’ philosophy of golf. Golf is inherently a sport of small margins where good and bad luck plays a part. The ability to deal with such inequities is very much part of the traditional challenge of the game.

Secondly, we also keep in mind that golf is a self-regulating sport, played by millions of people around the world. Therefore, we shouldn’t change the rules so often that it becomes difficult for the average player to keep up-to-date. To over-regulate or over-complicate the game would be unhelpful.

The USGA, our rule-making partners, has a similar review process and joins The R&A, along with one representative from Canada, at the twice yearly Joint Rules Committee meetings. It is the task of the joint committee to help sift through all the suggestions received on both sides of the Atlantic and help ensure that uniformity in the Rules is maintained. The final sign off happens at the Quadrennial Rules Conference – which took place in January this year - where we are joined by our international advisory members. Once the formal approval process is complete, the process of informing the world of the changes begins and the organisational challenge that will see The R&A publish a total of 2.6 million copies of the Rules of Golf 2012-15 in English and deliver them to 95 worldwide destinations.

But that is not the end of the story. Before the rules came into effect on 1 January, R&A Rules officials met with, amongst others, European Tour referees and representatives from numerous golf association to explain how the new Rules should be interpreted. Now it’s all done you’d think there was some time to rest but no, we have already got the books out again and work has already started on the 2016 edition!