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Change 267 Years in Making: A Tweak in the Rules of Golf

Change comes slowly in golf, a game that traces its origins to 15th-century Scotland. Its longstanding rules, honored under a gentleman’s code, endure even when they seem to defy logic and reasonableness.

golf clubs
golf clubs

“Golf is an inherently complicated game, and the concepts of simplicity and fairness very often pull in diametrically opposed directions,” said David Rickman, the director for rules and equipment for the R&A, formerly the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the sport’s ruling body in much of the world.

But change is not unheard of. And it came this week with a whiff of the revolutionary. The R&A, along with the United States Golf Association, which administers the game in this country, amended nine principal regulations from the Rules of Golf, the bible of the game. No longer will a player be penalized a stroke if the wind moves his ball while his club is near it. And if he or she smoothes the sand before playing a shot from a bunker, and in doing so does not gain an advantage, well, that’s O.K., too.

For serious golfers, the changes may as well have come inscribed on a pair of tablets delivered from a mountaintop. They will affect everyone, from tour professionals competing for millions to municipal golfers with a $2 bet on the line. The game’s officials insist the changes — at least one 267 years in the making — were not influenced by recent events, but it probably did not hurt that in recent years a few professionals lost lots of money and a chance at a title or two after violating these very rules.

What began as 13 rules authored by a Scottish golf club in 1744 are now 34 regulations and procedures. The 155-page book resembles a car manual, and probably gets as much use.

Why so many rules for a game whose basic principle is to play the course as you find it and not touch the ball until you lift it from the hole?

“We could issue a more simple rule book, but I’m afraid it would fail the fairness test, and what good would that do?” Mr. Rickman said.

These changes, which take effect at the first of the year, will not fundamentally change the game. But for golfers who obey the letter of the law, its latest evolution will very likely be applauded for easing penalties and removing ambiguity. For the rest of us, the question is simple: What took so long?

In any case, golfers will no longer be penalized if their ball moves after they have taken their stance and grounded their club when it is “known or virtually certain that (they) did not cause the ball to move.”

“A lot of time, players were penalized and they didn’t do anything to make the ball move,” said Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s vice president for rules and competition.

Mr. Russell noted three prominent examples when a gust of wind influenced a ball at rest: Padraig Harrington at the 2009 Masters, Fredrik Jacobson at the 2008 British Open and Rory McIlroy at this year’s British Open. Each accepted a penalty stroke. Under the revised rule, this would not have happened — and Webb Simpson might have been a shoo-in for the tour’s player of the year award.

In May, at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, Mr. Simpson prepared to tap in a par putt of less than a foot on the 15th green — until the wind caused his ball to oscillate after he had grounded his putter behind it. He called a penalty on himself. Mr. Simpson, who was in pursuit of his first tour title, ultimately lost in a playoff.

“It’s such a bad rule,” he said afterward.

Mr. Simpson, who won twice later in the season, lost the tour money title to Luke Donald by $335,861 — or less than the $460,800 difference between first and second place at the Zurich. Which raises another question: How much did Mr. Simpson’s misfortune influence the new amendment?

“This was not a knee-jerk reaction,” said Thomas Pagel, the U.S.G.A.’s director for the Rules of Golf.

However, the ruling bodies did add an exception to Rule 13-4 based on an equally peculiar situation involving some unauthorized raking by the caddie of the former British Open champion Stewart Cink at the 2008 Zurich Classic. Now, Exception 2 of the rule grants players the right to smooth sand or soil in a hazard at any time, including before playing from that hazard, providing it is done for the sole purpose of caring for the course and nothing is done to improve the position or lie of their ball, the area of their intended stance or swing, or their line of play.

Not all of the amended rules were influenced by incidents among the professional ranks. Mr. Pagel noted that “if someone calls from their club championship event in Kansas, that is just as likely to be the genesis for a rule change.”

And call they do. The U.S.G.A. handles rules questions and complaints over the phone and by e-mail virtually year round. But settling the dispute of a golfer’s $2 Nassau can require waiting till the next business day. Which is nothing compared with waiting centuries for the winds of change.