Having just finished a bracing winter round, the thought occurred that I will have only a few more games before the sport undergoes significant change. Yes golf will remain golf. It will still baffle, annoy, frustrate and thrill depending on the shot just executed but it will be different and we need to be ready. From January 1 we will be playing under the biggest set of rules changes for a generation and some of the moves are pretty important. The game should be a bit quicker to play and the procedures a little easier to understand. Well, at least, that’s the intention.
For me it came into sharper focus on our seventeenth when my opponent splashed out of a greenside bunker. It was a friendly two-ball and I was now ready to putt for par from the obligatory 35 feet away. There was little point in me lining up the putt, I was having one of those days where alignment was of little consequence. I could find the outside edge of every hole with my eyes shut from any distance and never hear the satisfying sound of ball dropping into cup. But enough of my short stick woes. The point was that my opponent was now raking the bunker, rather than tending the flag for my putt - so there was a delay to proceedings. Friendly two-ball or not, it does not feel right to putt with an unattended flagstick. But this is a scenario that will disappear next year. We will be able to putt with the flagstick left in the hole and will not incur a penalty if our ball hits the pin (not that this is an issue for me!). This rule change has been made with the specific intention of speeding up play, to enable one player to putt while the other is otherwise occupied. It makes perfect sense. However, my fear is that this could prove counter-productive in the precise world of the professional game.
There are some players who believe it will be an advantage to putt with the flag in while other prefer to see it removed from the hole. The golfing scientist that is Bryson DeChambeau is even going to be testing the COR of flagpoles before making a judgement. This is the Coefficient of Restitution - a measurement trampoline effect. In golf it has always been used to measure the legality or otherwise of club faces - now the whacky DeChambeau wants to know about the flags. If the poles feel pretty dead he will putt with the flag left in. And this makes me wonder whether we are now going to see even more protracted processes on the greens at pro events. One player wants the flag out, great let’s crack on. But then the next golfer wants it back in and their caddie will be left tiptoeing around the lines of fellow competitors to return it to the cup. I foresee faffing. And this out of a rule change aimed at speeding up play.
The other one that worries me is allowing players to repair any form of damage on greens and not solely indentations made by landing balls. Spikemarks and the like become fair game and pro’s will be all over this to seek an advantage. Again, I predict prevarication with golfers tapping down the slightest blemish, real or imagined, in the fashion of Joe Root prodding a cricket pitch with his bat to waste some time and help England’s batsmen make it to tea. Of course this may be misplaced pessimism - my putting tends to bring on such moods. The fact that we will only be allowed to spend three rather than five minutes looking for lost balls is a smart move, so too the introduction of penalty areas to make procedures around water hazards and the like easier to follow. Dropping the ball from knee rather than shoulder height is another change and it will no longer be a problem if we inadvertently ground our club in a bunker where we will also be allowed to remove loose impediments.
Overall the changes make a lot of sense and I can heartily recommend the new Players Edition of the Rules of Golf published by the R and A. Indeed, for the avid golfer there can be few better Christmas stocking fillers than this guide to the new rules. There’s also a rules app available for smartphones, so we genuinely have no excuse for inadvertent breaches in the new year. As for my 35 footer on the seventeenth. I waited for the flag to be removed, hit my putt, dipped my knees, saw the ball shave the hole and wrote another bogey on my scorecard. Some things do not change.