2019 USGA Rule Changes: What you need to know

2019 is almost here, and there are some pretty significant rule changes coming that everyone needs to be aware of. The USGA and R&A have made some changes to the rules of golf that will take effect on Jan 1, 2019. They are a part of an effort to simplify and update the rules for the times, and in a few cases to help speed up play. There’s a lot to digest, so I’ll try to keep it brief and highlight the most important changes.

  • Ball Deflections – If a player hits a shot and accidentally hits himself, his equipment, his cart or caddy (or another player, that player’s equipment, cart or caddy), it is no longer a penalty. You can simply play your next shot from where the ball comes to rest.
  • Double-Hits – It is no longer a penalty for hitting the ball multiple times with one swing. This kind of penalty most often happens with delicate chip shots. Under the updated rules, you only need to count the intended shot and play the ball where it lies for your next shot.
  • New Ball in Play – Previously, you could put a new ball in play when taking relief from a hazard or lost ball, but not when taking relief from an obstruction. Now, the player can put a new ball into play any time they take relief. For example, if your ball comes to rest on a cart path or against a man-made obstruction to which you are entitled relief, you can substitute a new golf ball if you like.
  • Damaged Clubs – We all know a few hotheads, and in the past when they lost their cool and snapped their driver on their knee, that club was out of play and they couldn’t replace it. Now, if the club is able to be repaired during the round, they can repair it and continue playing. A few examples would be if the head of your adjustable driver comes loose, you can simply tighten the adjustment screw and continue playing. Another is if you accidentally bend your putter shaft, you can continue playing with the bent club. You still cannot replace a club with another except when it is damaged by an outside influence, like if another player breaks it, or the wind blows your bag off a cliff, which almost happened to me at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in high winds!
  • Distance Measuring Devices – The rules concerning laser rangefinders and GPS devices aren’t changing, but the wording is. In 2019, these devices are allowed unless the rules committee specifically bans them. In the past, they were outlawed unless the committee specifically allowed them. The new wording makes more sense since most clubs allowed them anyway.
  • Dropping from Knee Height – Under the new rules, you don’t have to drop the ball from an outstretched arm at shoulder height. Now you can drop the ball from knee height, which gives you a bit more control over where a dropped ball comes to rest. It’s also important to note that the change includes the stipulation that the ball must remain within the boundary of relief, so if you get one club length, the dropped ball must not roll outside that one club area.
  • Local Rule for OB/Lost Ball – There is now an option for a local rule that give players another option to the standard stroke & distance rule for a lost ball or ball hit out of bounds. For example, if you walk down the fairway and discover your ball is out of bounds, instead of walking all the way back to the tee, you now have the option to drop in the nearest point of the fairway (within to clubs of the edge of the fairway) and no closer to the hole, with a two-stroke penalty. This will basically be the same as hitting a ball OB, then re-teeing and hitting your third shot down the fairway. You will still be hitting your fourth shot, it just saves time. Again, this is a local rule a club can adopt and is not applicable for tournament play.
  • Searching for Ball – Under the old rules, if the player moved his ball while searching for it, they would be assessed a one stroke penalty. if other players, spectators or caddies moved the ball there is no penalty. Under the new rules, there is no penalty of anyone accidentally moves the ball while searching for it. You simply replace it as it was and/or recreate the lie if buried in a bunker. The other change to remember is you now only have 3 minutes to look for a lost ball, not 5.
  • Bunkers – Players have always been able to declare a ball unplayable in a bunker and drop in the bunker, but now there is another option. A player can now take a two-stroke penalty and drop the ball outside the bunker in line with the flag, no nearer to the hole. This option is great for the situation where dropping a ball in the bunker may lead to a worse lie than before, like when the sand is very soft and deep, or if the player simply hates hitting bunker shots.
  • More Bunkers – It’s ok if your clubs are placed in the bunker while you play a shot, or if you accidentally touch the sand while getting in the bunker or to brace yourself if you are losing balance. It’s also ok to touch the sand when removing a loose impediment, so long as you aren’t doing it in a way that improves your lie or would be testing the conditions.
  • Ball Moving on the Green – There is no penalty of the player accidentally causes the ball or his marker to move on the putting green. You just have to move the ball or marker back to its original location. However, if the player hasn’t yet marked and lifted the ball and it gets blown to a new location by the wind, the ball must be played from where it comes to rest. Once the ball has been marked and replaced, if the wind should cause it to move before a stroke is made, the player can replace it where it was marked.
  • Repairing the Green – This is a big one because it allows players to finally fix spike marks on the greens! In fact, players can repair ball marks, spike marks, scrapes and indentations caused by equipment or a flagstick, old hole plugs, turf plugs, seams of cut turf, scrapes or indentations from maintenance tools or vehicles, animal tracks or embedded objects such as stones, acorns or tees. Basically, any man-made damage to the green can be repaired, except to the hole itself.
  • Flagstick – Fast players can rejoice now that the USGA is allowing players to putt with the flagstick in the hole! It will no longer be a penalty if a ball played from the green hits the flagstick. We’re already hearing stories of PGA Tour players experimenting with leaving the flagstick in while they putt, and it remains to be seen if this will be an advantage or disadvantage for some players.

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