The Golf Digest headline last week summarized the feelings of many in golf: "Finally, a Rules change we absolutely love".
The headline was in reaction to the USGA and R&A's joint announcement that, starting Jan. 1, a new Local Rule can be implemented to eliminate the penalty when a ball or ball marker is accidentally moved on the putting green.
The Local Rule will be utilized by the top tours around the world and at all USGA and R&A championships, qualifying tournaments and their international matches. It's expected that many tournament committees -- including at the course/club level -- will likewise enact the new Local Rule, which has a good chance of becoming part of the Rules of Golf when the next edition is issued.
The Local Rule could affect many golfers -- from those who compete in events at their local courses or clubs, to the highest level of tournament play. And it also has an additional local angle given that CGA executive director Ed Mate and former CGA staffer -- and current USGA senior director of Rules of Golf and Amateur Status -- Thomas Pagel both serve on the USGA Rules of Golf Committee, which reviews such matters very carefully before any such changes are announced.
Of course, last week's announcement directly addresses situations such as the one that occurred in this year's U.S. Open, where Dustin Johnson's ball moved slightly on the fifth green at Oakmont Country Club during the final round as he was preparing to address it. As the pertinent rule indicated at the time, if the weight of evidence indicates it's more likely than not that a player caused the ball to move, then a penalty must be assessed.
Johnson notified a USGA official and told him he didn't believe he caused the ball to move, but after other officials reviewed close-up video, DJ was notified on the 12th hole that the matter would be settled after the round. That, of course, left things in limbo for both Johnson and the rest of the competitors. But despite a one-stroke penalty being assessed after the round, Johnson still won by three. That didn't stop a torrent of criticism regarding the USGA's handling of the matter.
"For a long time this summer, it's all people (in the golf community) wanted to talk about," Mate noted on Friday. "So yes, there was a ton of feedback. Everyone, including the USGA, agrees it was handled poorly. The second thing was, rules officials agree almost unanimously that Dustin Johnson caused the ball to move, while everyone else seemed to think clearly he didn't cause it to move. I thought the ruling was correct regarding the rules in place at the time. With the preponderance of evidence, I thought he caused ball to move. (Similarly), rules officials thought the ruling was right but was handled poorly."
Whatever the case, with the situation involving the leader of a major championship during the final round, it was one of the biggest stories of the year in golf. Indeed, Golf World recently ranked it -- along with another rules-related controversy at the U.S. Women's Open -- the No. 5 Newsmaker of the Year.
Pagel and Mate both noted that the issue about a ball accidentally moving on the putting green has long been on the USGA Rules of Golf radar, with the Johnson situation bringing it to the forefront. And that resulted in last week's announcement, which was a relatively rare situation in which a rules alteration was made in between formal revisions of the Rules of Golf.
But this change is part of a larger project of Rules modernization and simplification being undertaken by the USGA and R&A. According to a Q&A on USGA.org, "we plan to preview a comprehensive set of proposed changes in 2017."
"Would this be happening if not for Dustin Johnson? I don't think so," Mate said of this new Local Rule. "But it was a smart PR move and consistent with the overall modernization project."
"It's a complete review," Mate said of the modernization initiative. "Everything is looked at, including clubs, balls, equipment, swinging of the club ... No stone is left unturned. (Potentially) there will be lots of changes."
For more information from the USGA on the new Local Rule, CLICK HERE.