David Howell: Rules refreshment get a big thumbs up from me

The new rules, set to be implemented by the R&A and USGA from January 2019 are less complex and should improve both the enjoyment level and the pace of play.


I grew up at Broome Manor Golf Club in Swindon. Well, I didn’t actually live there, of course, but it was close enough to call it home. Barry Sandry was the Club Professional and he was one of the fi rst Pros in the UK to run Junior lessons that had a grade system, Level 3 included having to solve a ruling by using the R&A Rules Book.

I was 11 years old and he might as well have asked me to solve a quantum physics question. I passed the test in the end, but only when he presented me with a ruling that I already knew. This was back in 1985, and still to this day the Rules Book is so complicated that to use it properly you need the even bigger, “Decisions on the Rules of Golf Book”. That is a tome of a book. So it is with great delight that we welcome in the new Rules of Golf after a five year consultation period, to come into effect in 2019.

Mental torture

I’m quite good with people, but for 20 years I have struggled to work out how to tell my playing partners, often CEOs of great companies, during pro-ams, that spike marks cannot be tapped down, without causing embarrassment. Now I need stress no more over this, as tapping down spike marks will soon be legal under the new Rules Book. For those of us who love the game for the pure mental torture it can inflict, this is a shame when you consider that 99% of people who wish to hole a three-footer after the shot of a lifetime, being able to undo the damage caused by the player in front, who has just done a moon walk around the cup, will come as a great relief.

Quite why decapitating your partner in a foursomes match also comes with a penalty as harsh as loss of a hole has always been a puzzle to me. Or why a self-inflicted collision with your own ball should require the further pain of a one-shot penalty, what a kick in the you know where that was. So, good riddance to that rule, too. From now on, unless you deliberately choose to place yourself in the way of that very hard white flying round object, no penalty will be incurred. We will now be able to scurry around, madly looking for our own ball without fear that if we find it via the sole of our own foot we will be penalised. So, no more penalties for accidentally moving the ball whilst searching for it. Mind you, we now only have 3 instead of 5 minutes to find it. So, scurrying is now firmly recommended.

Moral code

Hazards, and there will now be many more of them, will be treated much more like any other part of the course: loose impediments can be moved; club heads grounded, except in bunkers where hovering of the club is still required. There will be no more advantages for those still using the long putter when it comes to dropping – the driver will be used for all measuring from now, which seems sensible. On the slow play front, playing when ready is firmly recommended – safety first, of course.

Putting with the pin in (should you desire) will feel strange for a while but is exactly what one does when playing on your own. So this is also a good change from a’ pace of play’ perspective. One of the things I love about golf is the very high moral code it requires. We are expected to penalise ourselves when we break a rule. It’s often an arbitrary rule. Just like in life, doing the right thing can be hard sometimes. But that’s also golf’s great strength as a game. Keeping this balance is key in my mind. Upholding that moral code high enough that the game doesn’t descend into an ‘anything goes’ culture is of the upmost importance. Yet, being rid of the rules that most people can’t help but fall foul of, is for the good of the growth of the game, a good thing I guess.


Two places where I feel the changes haven’t been sensible are these: Currently, if you feel the need to lift your ball to identify it, or check if its damaged, you have to inform your playing partner and give them a chance to watch the process. Taking this away is giving those few unscrupulous players the perfect opportunity to improve their lie. Personally, I would have taken the view that we should help save themselves from themselves and keep this requirement in place. If you’re of the cheating disposition, having the ball in your hand in the rough and managing to get it back into its exact lie, I can only imagine, will be a mental challenge of the highest order. The powers that be have shown huge faith in their followers on this one.
One change I personally asked for was the reduction in penalty from two shots to one for teeing off one inch in front of the markers at the beginning of its 500-yard journey. Having fallen foul of this myself, I can and did tell them it feels unduly harsh. That’s coming from someone who enjoys the harsh black and white nature of the Rules. Alas, they took no notice of me on this one. So, it’s a big thumbs-up in general for the new Rules. I’m glad I will still be hitting out of sanded divots after a ripped drive for many years to come.

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