Rules of Golf

The Rule’s of Golf… They Are A Changin’

On January 1, 2019, the most significant and game-altering changes in decades to the Official Rules of Golf will take effect.

Implemented after a multi-year vetting and commenting process jointly overseen by both of golf’s supreme governing authorities–the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews–golf’s worldwide unified “New Rules” are intended to streamline and speed up play for the recreational golfer, while making rulings in formal competitions more intuitive, more user-friendly, and less “gotcha,” than were prior versions of the Rules.


(A)The USGA Rules 2019 APP:  Every golfer with a an Android or iOS smartphone should immediately go to their App Store and download the USGA RULES OF GOLF – 2019 APP.  It is FREE.  The App has three separate segments: (i) the “Players Edition,” which provides a laypersons detail (with very helpful illustrations) of the new rules that should prove sufficient in virtually all casual golf rounds and most competitive ones, (ii) the “Full Rules,” which provides the actual text of the new rules as jointly drafted and agreed upon by the USGA and the R&A, and (iii) the “Official Guide,” which is designed for use in tournament conditions by Tournament Rules Officials/Committees, and includes, among other things, recommended Committee Procedures, and the formal Rules Interpretations (i.e. what was known previously as the “Rules Decisions”).

(B) Every golfer should bookmark the USGA’s website on their home computer. A click on the “Playing,” and “Rules” dropdown menus will direct you to a 2019 Rules Education menu that gives direct access to the formal text of the New Rules, the Rules Interpretations, and very helpful series of short videos providing visual guidance to golfers as how to proceed under the New Rules in a variety of common situations golfers face on the course in a typical round.  Twenty-five minutes spent online watching this series of videos is time well-spent for any golfer who wants to make sure he or she is playing our great game as it is intended to be played.

(C) Golfers in Southern California will be able find additional helpful information about the New Rules by visiting the website of the Southern California Golf Association at  Rumor has it that beginning in late 2019, the SCGA’s Rules personnel will be rolling out an entire new series of its popular (and humorous) “Rules Crew” videos dedicated to providing practical interpretations of the New Rules as they impact Southern California golfers.


A full discussion of all the 2019 changes to the Rules of Golf would turn this blog-post into a decent sized book. A few highlighted 2019 changes include:

(A) Knee Height Drops:  Any time a ball is to be dropped by a player under the New Rules, the player no longer extends his or her arm at shoulder height to drop the ball. Under the new rules, all drops are from approximately the height of the player’s knee.

(B) Dropping Areas Simplified: When under the Rules a ball is to be dropped, either within one club length (relief from immovable obstruction, abnormal ground condition, or when taking stroke and distance relief) or two club lengths (unplayable lie, relief from lateral hazard) of a fixed point, the “Dropping Area” is now the appropriate “wedge of pie” measured from the fixed point in which the Ball must be BOTH dropped (from knee height) AND come to rest.  The prior rule that a dropped ball was permitted to roll two club-lengths from where the ball first hit the ground has been eliminated.

(C) Penalty Areas Simplified:  Water Hazards (marked yellow) and Lateral Water Hazards (marked red) have been redefined as “Penalty Areas” (marked either yellow or red), and a player’s options have been simplified.  First, a ball found in a Penalty Area may be played as it lies in the Penalty Area.  Unlike before, the Player is now permitted to remove loose impediments from around a ball found in a Penalty Area as long as the ball does not move in the process, and the player is permitted (i) toground his or her club in the Penalty Area, and/or (ii) take practice swings insidee the Penalty Area, as long as the player’s lie and intended line are not improved. Second, with a penalty of one stroke, a player may still take either “stroke and distance” or “line of sight” relief from the Penalty Area by dropping a ball within one club-length from the appropriate relief spot. Third, in a Red Penalty Area, the player has an additional option, with a one stroke penalty, of dropping a ball within two club lengths no closer to the hole of the last point the player’s ball crossed the margin of the Red Penalty Area. A fourth option previously available for lateral hazard relief under the prior rules permitting a drop on the “opposite margin of the hazard equidistant from the point of entry” has been eliminated.

(D) Ball Deemed Lost if not Found Within 3 Minutes: Under the New Rules, a player’s ball is deemed lost if not found within 3 minutes of when the player or the player’s caddie first begins to search for it.  The prior rules gave the player a 5 minute search time to find his or her ball.  To speed up play, players are encouraged to play a Provisional Ball before going to start the search for their original ball.

(E) No Penalty If Ball Accidentally Moved: If a player, a player’s caddie, or anyone else accidentally moves a ball in play while searching for it, there is no longer any penalty associated with the accidental movement.  The Player must replace the Ball and restore its lie before playing the next shot.  Further, if a player’s ball is accidentally moved for any reason on the putting green, it is to be replaced with no penalty.  If a ball on a putting green moves after it has been marked and lifted (even if it has been replaced and the mark removed and/or if the movement was caused by the wind or other natural causes), the ball is to be replaced where it had been marked and played from the spot where previously marked with no penalty.  If a ball on a putting green moves due to wind or other natural causes before it has first been marked or lifted, the ball is to be played from the new spot without penalty as if the ball had come to rest on that new spot originally.

(F) Additional Option for Ball Unplayable in Bunker.  The one stroke penalty options of stroke and distance, and line of sight within in the bunker, provided under the former rules for taking relief from an unplayable ball coming to rest in a Bunker have been retained. The New Rules, have added an additional relief option which permits the player to extend the line of sight relief option beyond and behind the margin of the Bunker, except that the penalty associated with this new method of relief is two strokes, instead of one.

(G) Flagsticks: Players may, at any time, have the flagstick attended, removed, or left in the hole—even if their stroke is taken with the ball on the putting green. This will likely speed up play significantly as players—particularly on long putts (and on very short ones)–will not have to wait to have the flagstick attended before taking their first putt.  *Note, PGA Tour Player Bryson DeChambeau was recently quoted as saying it is his intention in 2019 to never have the flagstick removed for any full shot or putt, because he believes the flagstick will never “hurt” a good shot or putt, and hitting the flagstick can only help shorten shots or putts that are hit with too much pace and would not go in anyway.

(H)  Miscellaneous additional changes. Unless the conditions of competition expressly prohibit them, standard distance measuring devices are permitted. The embedded ball rule now covers the entire golf course, except Penalty Areas and Bunkers.  An unintentional “double-hit” of any shot (putt or swing) no longer triggers a one-shot penalty. If a ball in play accidentally strikes or is interfered with by a player, a player’s caddie, an opponent, any of their equipment or any other person or person’s equipment, there is no penalty, it is considered a “rub of the green,” and the ball is played wherever it comes to rest.

As noted at the outset, there are many significant changes to the Rules of Golf that automatically go into effect on January 1, 2019.  Due to space limitations, a number of these changes could not be discussed here. I strongly recommend that any casual golfer interested insuring their golf rounds are scored correctly, and every competitive golfer, both (i) download the free USGA Rules App to their smartphone (and read it), and (ii) spend about twenty-five minutes at the website watching the series of videos designed by the USGA to provide players with an overview of the New Rules.  I’m certain most players will find it a useful and productive use of their time, and should make their rounds of golf in 2019 (and beyond) that much more enjoyable.

[Photo by Court Prather on Unsplash]