The Rules of Golf: Now Ever So Slightly Less Arcane

Dustin Johnson consults with a rules official on the fifth green after his ball moved during the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club. Credit: David Cannon / Getty Images

Golf is a simple game. The object is to get the ball in the cup in the fewest shots possible, over 18 holes. The rules of golf, on the other hand, are a befuddling, arcane, hot mess. Thankfully, today the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient have moved to simplify them, if only a little.

This particular change is an obvious one. Just ask Dustin Johnson. During last year’s U.S. Open, he was assessed a one-shot penalty because his ball accidentally moved on the putting green. Johnson, during his practice stroke routine, grounded his putter, and the ball rolled before he actually stepped up to hit it. Neither he, his playing partner, Lee Westwood, nor a rules official on the course thought Johnson had caused the movement. But after endless video replay, the USGA rules committee deemed he had “probably” caused the ball to roll a millimeter or two and penalized him anyway.

The controversial ruling could have been disastrous and cost him the tournament. Thankfully, Johnson went on to win his first major by three shots and saved the USGA the absurd embarrassment they so richly deserved.

To prevent future idiotic debacles of this sort, the game’s two governing bodies announced a new “local rule” modifying rules 18-2, 18-3, and 20-1.

"When a player’s ball lies on the putting green, there is no penalty if the ball or ball-marker is accidentally moved by the player, his partner, his opponent, or any of their caddies or equipment.

The moved ball or ball-marker must be replaced as provided in Rules 18-2, 18-3, and 20-1."

This new rule goes into effect on January 1, 2017 and will be applicable at all of next year’s major championships, qualifiers, and any tournament or club that wishes to adopt it. It's important to note that this is not a change to The Rules of Golf, so individual courses and tournaments will have to accept it, and you’ll want to check with them before entering into any big money skins games.

Of course, this is only a tiny move in the right direction. For the health of the game, golf’s rule book still needs a major overhaul. Simplifying it would help speed up play and make playing more approachable for more people. But for now, at least DJ and the rest of us won’t have to anguish over accidents on the greens.