Rules of Golf: Learning from 2019 and Looking Ahead March 3, 2020 | Liberty Corner, N.J. By Jamie Wallace and Ben Schade, USGA

One of the biggest Rules changes in 2019 was permitting players to putt with the flagstick in when on the green. (USGA/Chris Keane)

For anyone interested in the Rules of Golf and the game in general, 2019 was a significant year that will have a lasting influence on the way the game is played by future generations. When the most recent revision of the Rules of Golf went into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, it was the culmination of more than seven years of holistic review by the USGA and The R&A. The goal was to see where the Rules could be rewritten, reorganized, simplified and modernized to improve outcomes and make them easier to understand and apply. All golfers, from casual players to those on professional tours, have now had more than a year of playing under the new Rules. Let’s take a look at some key events from 2019 and what we learned from them, the continuing role of education and what is coming in 2020 and beyond.

In late 2018, the USGA undertook a wide-ranging education initiative to prepare the golf community to conduct competitions under the new Rules in early 2019. When most golfers considered the effect of a new Rules code, they first thought about how it would affect players. The other side to that coin included all of the administrators working for golf associations, junior tours, professional tours and other organizations who also needed to learn the new code. To accomplish this, the USGA conducted four-day workshops around the country, offered monthly topic-based webinars, rolled out a new online adaptive learning tool for high school and college golf teams, introduced videos and an entirely new Rules mobile app, and assisted the major professional tours on-site at their tournaments throughout early 2019. This was only a start, as we have much more golfer education to accomplish in 2020.

Despite all of the planning, we knew the implementation of the new code would not be perfect. The first two items to become major points of discussion were the knee-height dropping procedure and the ability to putt with the flagstick in the hole. These changes required a significant adjustment period for both fans and players. At the same time, we remain confident about their positive impact on the game in the long term. With continued education efforts throughout 2019, golfers around the world adjusted and both changes are much less frequently discussed in early 2020.

One of the most significant 2019 enhancements was a mechanism to provide guidance and adjustments to the Rules in real time, eliminating the need to live with an unclear Rule until the next revision cycle. This living document is called Clarifications of the 2019 Rules of Golf and is usually updated quarterly. This new layer of flexibility in the structure of the Rules will have a wide-ranging positive impact for years to come. One of the first Rules to benefit from the introduction of Clarifications was 10.2b(4), which covers a caddie providing alignment help to the player. Let’s review a few changes introduced last year through Clarifications:

  • Caddie Alignment – In February 2019, after some confusion and an undesirable penalty at the professional level, three Clarifications were issued in a matter of days relating to Rule 10.2b(4). These Clarifications limit the application of the Rule so that it can be applied as intended. The new language removes inadvertent penalties while ensuring that the skill of player alignment is protected.

  • Club Damage Local Rule – When introduced, the new Rules essentially removed the ability to replace a broken club, even one broken while playing a stroke. However, the idea that something other than a player’s skill could decide a competition was not the desired outcome at all levels of play. Therefore, an optional Local Rule was introduced that allows a broken club to be replaced (except in cases of abuse).

  • Back-On-The-Line Relief Local Rule – In drafting the 2019 Rules, there was a desire to have all relief procedures look similar, which led to the relief area concept that is built into all relief Rules. However, back-on-the-line relief does not give the player a definitive starting point for the relief process, which could lead a player to play unintentionally from a wrong place. This led to the creation of an optional Local Rule that provides additional protection for the player when using this particular relief option. It expands the size of the area where a player is allowed to play their ball from after dropping it.

The above are just three examples of the more than 25 Clarifications that have been issued since January 2019.

One of the goals of Rules Modernization was to remove undesirable outcomes and unwarranted penalties. After much discussion early in the year and the introduction of Clarifications, the past year has been relatively quiet from the perspective of controversial rulings. To illustrate this, in the first events on the PGA Tour under the 2019 Rules, there were only four penalties related to the new Rules in the first 100,000 shots played. Some of the credit can certainly go to the common-sense limitations that were introduced regarding the effect of video in changing an outcome. We heard similar sentiments from various Allied Golf Associations, junior tours and college competitions. Additionally, the USGA championship season went even more smoothly than we could have hoped, with very few penalties specific to the Rules changes.

Another expectation was that the 2019 Rules would help improve pace of play, even though we were aware that some individual changes might slow the game down. While a number of factors contribute to pace of play (such as starting time intervals, course layout, maintenance practices and the actions of players), the Rules also play a part. Numerous anecdotal comments noted improvements at golf courses around the country (many giving particular credit to the changes in the flagstick Rule), and we also saw marked improvements at many of our own championships.

The Rules of Golf have never been and never will be a static document – as the game, technology and society as a whole continue to evolve, the Rules will, too. The holistic review that resulted in the new Rules for 2019 was the largest set of changes ever, but let’s take a look at what is coming in 2020 and beyond:

  • Rule 10.2b – We continue to receive new and interesting questions relating to the application of Rule 10.2b (which covers pointing out the line of play, setting down objects to help in taking the stance, and alignment assistance, among other items). This Rule will undergo a further holistic review – including caddie alignment help, ball markers and other alignment devices, and the use of self-standing putters –  to see how it can be rewritten to ensure outcomes that are consistent with the purpose of the Rules.

  • Clarifications – As issues in the field are raised, we will continue to use Clarifications to modify Rules as needed. This level of flexibility is unprecedented and will allow us to make sure the Rules work as envisioned at all times.

  • Education – One of our focuses in 2020 and going forward will be to offer additional educational opportunities to all golfers. This will include building out our certification structure at the highest end of the Rules spectrum, expanding our online, adaptive learning course to additional audiences, providing helpful resources to golf administrators, offering additional ways for anyone to get an answer to their Rules question, and generally building new avenues for golfers to interact with the Rules on their own terms.  

  • Revision Cycle – The date of the next full revision to the Rules of Golf, which will include printing updated books, is still undecided but will not occur before 2022.

We encourage you to reach out to the Rules Department anytime with a question or simply to have a conversation about any Rules topic. You can send us an email at or give us a call at 908-326-1850. Have a great 2020 golf season!

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