A Kinder, Gentler Golf?

I have often written in this space about the culture of golf.  To many, golf is perceived as a stuffy, elitist, exclusive activity with too many unnecessary rules.  Among the many issues with golf rules that have occurred of late include the Dustin Johnson penalty at the 2016 US Open and the Lexi Thompson penalty at the 2018 ANA Inspiration event.  As a result of these and other situations, combined with an effort to spur interest in the game, beginning January 1, 2019 a revised rules of golf, as promulgated by the USGA and R & A will take effect.


This is a good thing.  Simplifying the rules of golf makes the game more inviting, especially to the casual golfers we need for growth.  The new rules also seem to make golf more fair, though some might argue it’s not supposed to be.  I presume most golfers will approve not being penalized for a ball accidentally being moved, being able to estimate where your ball came to rest if moved and a shortening of the time allowed to search for a lost ball, among others.  Who really enjoys the walk back to the tee to replay the tee shot they just knocked OB?  Modern technology is now more widely approved (use of distance measuring devices) than previously, which previously required a local rule for permission.  Not only do these changes suggest that the game will become more fun for most amateurs, but they hold encouragement that the pace of play can improve and a round of golf can become less time-consuming.  Is golf getting “soft”?


Most clubs also have rules.  These typically range from such (very reasonable) things as how to take care of the golf course and spikeless shoes to (often controversial) things like tee time procedures, dress codes, cell-phone usage and guest policies.  In many cases, it is these specific club rules that turn many people off to golf.  If participation is to expand, and more courses open than close, embracing a broader culture as described in my 2017 post might be in order.  I know one club that lists 32 separate documents on its website dealing with a vast variety of rules and policies.  Another emails golfing guests with a list of “do’s and don’ts” for their guest experience.  Warm and fuzzy, huh?  One club has a 43 page document stating its rules and policies.  I once counted 219 golf rules at my longtime golf hangout.  That club has since closed.  Certainly, rules are a necessary element of our society, however we join clubs for recreation and relaxation.  Members everywhere constantly lament excessive rules.


The point here is not that there shouldn’t be any rules, but few club members and management would argue that at many clubs, there are often rules made for problems that don’t exist – a solution seeking a problem.  If the USGA and R & A can reduce the number of golf rules by more than a third (34 to 22), why can’t even our most steeped in tradition institutions do the same – follow the lead of our governing bodies and recognize that golf is, above all, A GAME?  It’s supposed to be FUN.


Many years ago, I recall playing in our State Amateur at a most storied venue when numerous competitors were required to purchase and wear long pants (un-hemmed) in the pro shop  because a club member complained about the length of one competitor’s shorts – at an Amateur event!  A few weeks later, one Association official called the incident a “fiasco” and rejected the idea that “golf was a game”.  Certainly, progress has been made on some fronts and many clubs, especially those owned by investors, for profit have evolved.  Without risking golf’s image as a “gentlemen’s game” there is still further to go if we are to attract the “3 M’s” (Millenials, Minorities & Moms).


To some, these concepts represent a break from some of golf’s time honored traditions, many  “cool” but some counter-productive.  If two of the most traditional organizations (USGA and R & A) foresee benefits to the game of streamlining and simplifying The Rules of Golf, is that a clue that even our most prestigious clubs can evolve?


Is golf getting soft?  I don’t think so.  Like everything else, it’s evolving.  Without such evolution, we wouldn’t have airplanes, computers, social media or cell phones.  Some would argue who needs them? Imagine living without in today’s world.  Let’s hope our clubs follow the governing bodies and allow this wonderful, ancient game to evolve with society.  It doesn’t have to change the culture and many gentlemanly traditions can and should be preserved.  Golf has certainly evolved in the area of equipment and golf course maintenance.  Now it’s time for the culture to evolve as well, and to quote President Bush (41) become a “kinder and gentler” game.