Golfers will no longer be penalized if their ball moves after it has been addressed in one of a number of rule changes announced by the sport’s governing bodies on Monday.
Rory McIlroy and Webb Simpson are high-profile players to have been hit with one-shot penalties this year for what was widely regarded as one of the harshest rules in golf.
The U.S. Golf Association and Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which are responsible for administering the Rules of Golf worldwide, say that starting Jan. 1, players will be exonerated if the ball moves after the address “when it is known or virtually certain that he did not cause the ball to move.”
“Every time the wind blows, I am worried that my ball is going to move and I am worried about grounding my putter, distracting me from trying to hole my putt,” said three-time major winner Padraig Harrington, who is an R&A ambassador.
The third-ranked McIlroy was hit with the punishment in his final round at the British Open at Royal St. George’s.
The consequences weren’t disastrous for McIlroy -- he had little chance of winning the tournament and ended up finishing 25th -- but the same cannot be said of Simpson’s misfortune in the final round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in May.
Simpson was leading by a shot and closing in on what would have been his first title when his ball moved on the 15th green. After being given a one-stroke penalty, he eventually lost in a playoff to Bubba Watson.
Simpson lost the PGA Tour money title to Luke Donald on Sunday by a margin of $335,861 -- the difference between first and second place at the Zurich Classic was $460,800.
Simpson at the time labeled the sanction “such a bad rule.”
Other changes announced by Monday include allowing players to smooth sand or soil before playing from a hazard “provided it is for the sole purpose of caring for the course and Rule 13-2 (improving lie, area of intended stance or swing or line of play) is not breached.”
Golfers will also no longer be automatically disqualified from a tournament if they start late, but within five minutes of the correct tee time. Instead, they will lose the first hole in match play or two shots at the first hole in stroke play.
“I am delighted with the changes, in particular the ball moving after address,” Harrington said. “It is definitely giving us players a little bit of a break.”
In addition, the definition of addressing the ball was revised to mean “simply … grounding his club immediately in front of or behind the ball, regardless of whether or not he has taken his stance.” Before, the address position required a player to be stood over the ball with the club grounded.
Other changes were aimed specifically at amateur players.
Amateur golfers all over the world now will be allowed to play for unlimited hole-in-one prizes.
Previously the rules allowed for amateurs to receive only small prizes, and that accepting something of greater value would force golfers to forfeit their amateur status. In one high-profile instance, Derek Lawrenson, a golf writer for The Daily Mail newspaper in London, won a Lamborghini but had to surrender his amateur status.
The governing bodies have now decided that "the special nature of a hole-in-one during a round of golf means that restrictions on the prizes offered have been lifted."
In addition, the new Rules of Amateur Status include changes for elite amateur golfers aimed at easing the move from amateur to professional. It follows a far-reaching four-year review of amateurism in golf, which even questioned the need for a set of rules and has resulted in the first-ever uniform worldwide code for amateur status.
"We felt the time was right to carry out a fundamental review of the Rules of Amateur Status," said R&A Director of Rules David Rickman. "We were conscious that many sports had done away with amateur status rules and we felt that was an appropriate question for us to ask.
"We concluded that it is very important that golf retains its amateur regulations, mainly because of the self-regulating nature of the game both in terms of the playing rules and handicapping," he added. "We felt that uncontrolled financial incentives could place too much pressure on these important features."
Excluding hole-in-one prizes from the general prize limit and allowing high-value prizes, including cash, to be awarded brings the R&A into line with the USGA.
"I think this is a really good change. Anyone who makes a hole-in-one knows there is a degree of luck," said LPGA Tour star Suzann Pettersen, an R&A ambassador like Harrington. "Most professional tournaments offer hole-in-one prizes and it adds some real interest for players and fans. It is great to think that club golfers can now experience that same excitement."
Also under the new rules aimed at amateurs thinking of a professional career, players will now be able to enter into an agreement with an agent or sponsor as long as they do not receive any financial gain while still an amateur.
Rules have also been relaxed on subsistence payments paid through national golf unions.
"The rules on contracts now reflect the modern game and adopt a much more realistic and common sense approach," Rickman explained. "Similarly, the rules on subsistence expenses should help the support of deserving talent wherever it may emerge across the golfing world."
England's Tom Lewis, who won recently won the Portugal Masters in just his third pro start at age 20, is a supporter of that change.
"It is an important change because some players are forced into turning pro early just because of financial difficulties," he said. "It will make a real difference as they will now be able to turn professional for all the right reasons and also at the right time for them. It is probably the most important decision they will make in their career."