Last summer, the USGA and R&A jointly announced a number of fantastic changes to the Rules of Golf, changes that will be in force in 2019.
Overall, these changes make the rules of the game much more logical, fair and far less randomly penal.
But even with all of these fantastic changes, the USGA still got one wrong IMHO.
Fear not, there is a fix. And the golf courses of Northeast Ohio can make it happen. Follow along:
Wisely under the 2019 Rules, the USGA allows the Committee to mark any unmaintained area of the course where a ball is unlikely to be found — gnarly wooded underbrush, a steep valley drop-off, or areas of water — with a red line, deemed a “penalty area”.
Hurrah! No more risking life-and-limb to find a ball where wild animals fear to tread. Players who hit a shot into these red-staked areas simply drop within two club lengths after taking relief at the spot where the ball crossed into the penalty area.
Well done, USGA.
This new 2019 guideline leaves some winter homework for golf course owners/superintendents/GMs: start now painting scores of new red stakes and planning where they might go to better pace-of-play.
But one rule the USGA didn’t change is the most penal, punishing, take-the-wind-out-of-your-sails fail in golf: the out-of-bounds shot. It’s golf’s nastiest rule, with its stroke-and-distance penalty and the time-consuming need to hit a provisional ball (while you are still mad) or go back to the tee (with head held low after-the-fact).
Sure, the new 2019 Rules offers the Committee the option to enact a Local Rule for OB. It allows a player to drop a ball in the fairway at the nearest point where the previous shot went out of bounds (which assumes your second try at the shot would go the same distance as the crooked one) with a penalty of two shots (ouch, man). But this complicated Local Rule requires a mental protractor to enact properly, is still doubly-punishing vs a ball hit into a penalty area, and will never be used during any competitive tournament.
The USGA could have simply added one other new rule to the 2019 batch that treats a shot hit out-of-bounds just like a shot hit into a penalty area (except without the chance to play it OB): take a drop where the ball crossed the margin of the area and add a one-shot penalty.
This change would have bettered pace-of-play (no more provisionals or coming back to the tee when you didn’t know you were OB) and made the punishment fit the crime (why is hitting a shot OB more egregious than hitting one into a water hazard or the woods?).
Unfortunately, the USGA blew this one.
Fortunately, Northeast Ohio golf course owners/superintendents/GMs can do something to fix it this spring.
The solution: another batch of red stakes.
On the first reasonable weather day in 2019, supers and course owners need to go out onto their properties and pull up every white stake they can, and replace them with red penalty area stakes.
(Exception: exterior roads and people’s back yards must remain as OB; there can’t be an option of playing a ball out of traffic or off a neighbor’s back deck. Which is why changing the OB rule itself was the best-case solution.)
Then, when golfers show up for everyday play or for a competitive tournament in Spring 2019, the method of play will be the same. Players can hit and move along safe in the knowledge that if they send one toward any these trouble areas, they don’t need a provisional ball and won’t have to come back to the tee should their ball end up off of the field of play.
They’ll simply determine the spot of entry into the penalty area, drop within two club-lengths, add one stroke to their score, and hit on. (Of course, taking this drop means the player knows for certain the ball ended up in the penalty area.)
So in 2019, if golf courses add red stakes around all areas that are clearly unmaintained and out-of-play wherever they can, everyone will get around the course at a better pace. A local rule about OB won’t be necessary. Rounds won’t be wrecked mercilessly by odious OB stroke-and-distance penalties. And best of all: that long OB walk-of-shame back to the tee to hit another ball will become super rare.
COMING THIS WINTER: NEOHgolf.com will post a series of articles outlining each of the major 2019 Rules changes in an easy-to-understand how-to, so every player is ready for the new season.