So how is golf for you 2019 style? We’ve now had six weeks or so to get used to dropping from knee height and the raft of other changes to the rules of our glorious game. Personally speaking, the one I like most is the new absence of penalty for a double hit. My recent chunked pitch was typical and the fact that I struck the ball with my follow through would previously have led to an instant blob in the midweek stableford. Not anymore, and much to my son’s chagrin, I was then able to get up and down for my six for two on the seventeenth which helped me to tie him with a pretty shoddy total of 30 points one hole later. To be serious, this was an example of where the game was made to feel less dispiriting. This was is one of the primary goals of the changes brought in by the R and A and United States Golf Association. I was already upset at hitting such a poor shot, I did not need further insult to the injurious nature of my shaky short game. I paid a just penalty for my incompetence because I was still nowhere near where I had hoped to hit my ball. But the fact that I was still alive in the hole meant that my relationship with this maddening game was not completely fractured.
The other rule change that particularly appeals is allowing the flag to remain in the cup for putting. Not because it makes life on the greens somewhat easier as many players contend but because it speeds up play. This is especially the case in a two ball. Your opponent is in a green side bunker while you are thirty odd feet away waiting to putt. Once the opposition have escaped the trap you can crack on, no need to wait for them to rake the bunker and tidy up. You are able to hit the putt you have been lining up while they have been in the sand. But in my opinion the rule should state that the flag can remain in the hole only when it speeds up play.
The prospect of playing hokey-hokey with the pin to satisfy the whim of someone else in the group who feels it could help them will be counter-productive to pace of play. Indeed, not all of the changes have met with widespread approval. Former world number one Adam Scott says the changes have made the game “a laughing stock”. The Aussie, who won the Masters in 2013, is now putting with the flag in place, even though he disagrees with the new rule. “To be honest, it almost changes the whole aim of the game,” he told The New York Times. “It’s to hit the pin, not hole the putt. It takes speed out of your head so much. It even takes some reading of the green out.” Scott added: “They’ve just written more grey areas into the game that were not necessary.” The most contentious of those has been the wording of the rule that now prevents a caddie from lining up his player. It prevents the bagman from standing on the line of a shot once their boss starts to address the ball. This is what did for China’s Haotong Li at the recent Dubai Desert Classic, costing him a two stroke penalty on the final green and around $70,000 in prize money. So outraged was European Tour boss Keith Pelley, he called out the rules makers even though the new regulation had been correctly applied. There was no way the caddie trying to tell Li the line of his putt. Therefore there was no crime, but a rule had been broken. This was an injustice in Pelley’s opinion.
Then at the Phoenix Open, US tour pro Denny McCarthy, was docked two strokes for what seemed a similar infringement as he prepared to hit a pitch to the green. But, crucially, he backed off the shot once his caddie had moved away. This prompted the PGA Tour, with the full support of the R and A and USGA, to rescind the penalty. It was still a mess and a week later officials sent out a clarification of the rule, which too be fair took some understanding. But the upshot was that provided a player backs away before re-addressing there will be no penalty. Dropping from knee height is a tricky one and certainly challenges middle-aged hamstrings. My first drop ended up with the ball hitting my foot – better to drop in front rather than to the side. But judging whether you are actually at knee height is not straightforward and Branden Grace raised eyebrows by letting go of the ball from a crouching position. No action was taken but he was clearly estimating knee height. The alterations will certainly take time to bed in and we have yet to see them utilised in a major when the eyes of the sporting world will be watching. Watch this space – it could be interesting. In the meantime, I’m just counting my blessings that my unintentional double hits now go unpunished.