Golf Australia is backing a top-level push to cut and simplify the Rules of Golf.
With the two rulemaking bodies, the R and A in Scotland and the USGA in the United States in the midst of a ''fundamental review'' of the 34 rules, GA's chief executive Stephen Pitt said the Rules of Golf were making it harder to attract and retain new players.
The joint committee of the R and A and the USGA are within a year of releasing the first draft of a new set of rules, according to a report emanating from America recently. But the full process, already five years long, is expected to take several more years beyond that, with time for public feedback.
Golf Australia, as with many players and administrators in the game worldwide, is anxious to see what comes of the discussions.
"I believe golf would benefit substantially from a simplification of the rules,'' said Pitt today. "It is a barrier for entry for new players of the game, and we do want to make it as easy as possible for people to play golf. Definitely with changes in the game from things like agronomy, there's a need to review the rules to reflect those changes.
"I think we should be striving for a vastly-simpler set of rules that still protect the integrity of the game but that increase the enjoyment of its players.''
Dustin Johnson's controversial penalty for allegedly moving his ball on a putting green in the final round of this year's US Open at Oakmont is a case in point. The USGA penalised Johnson, who went on to win the tournament, but the one-shot penalty caused a torrent of criticism. Johnson was deemed to have accidentally moved his ball while preparing to putt, although he denied it.
The rule relating to moving a ball on the putting green has already been tweaked in recent years; it is the rule that causes the most heat in world golf right now, since the ban on anchoring in putting several years ago.
Stephen Pitt believes that Johnson should not be penalised in that situation. "I’m comfortable with the USGA’s decision given the Rule as it stands but I have a personal feeling about balls moving on the putting surface,'' he said. "To me, it doesn't reflect modern conditions on greens. There have been players penalised for not doing anything wrong and not attempting in any way to gain an advantage, and not gaining in any way an advantage. That doesn't meet the commonsense test.''
Simon Magdulski, Golf Australia's director of rules and handicapping and a member of the R and A's rules committee, also believes that the rule relating to balls moving on the putting green is too harsh. "My guiding principle with the rules is that the person who wins the tournament should be the person who had the least number of strokes. If there are penalties in there, are they for technical reasons where a player has not been absolutely as careful as he or she could have been?
"This is a change that we've been seeking for a number of years at Golf Australia. Our belief is that if the player moves a ball on the putting green, even if they caused the ball to move, should not be subjected to a penalty. Replace the ball and get on with it. If you're on the fairway or in the rough and you cause the ball to move, the discussion is not as straightforward, but even then I have some sympathy for the argument that we should be looking for ways to avoid penalising the player in these circumstances. But on the green you're always allowed to mark the ball and lift it, clean it and so on.
"Obviously if a player is giving it a touch and moving it a bit closer to the hole while no one's watching, then clearly it's a penalty. But we're talking about really extreme cases. That's a change we at Golf Australia have been seeking for a lot of years now because you need to look at whether the player is getting any benefit from the action.''
While there are regular reviews of specific rules — for example, the anchoring ban — Magdulski said the current discussions represented the first comprehensive review of the full set of rules in 30 years. "They're basically looking at every single rule, all 34 rules with all the various sub-clauses, and their objective is to simplify the rules and to modernise them.
"My view is that trying to find ways to simplify the rules is a really good objective, and I think that will happen. Trying to have a set of rules in place that golfers find intuitive, I think, is something that's important as well. To have rules in place that when the blow torch is applied to them in the majors, the outcomes pass the pub test. I think that's important.''
Thomas Pagel, the USGA's senior director of rules, told Associated Press recently that the regular meetings between the two key bodies had sometimes lasted eight hours. "Everyone wants the game to be simple, but it's a complex game," Pagel said. "You have a little white ball that can and will go anywhere, and the rules try to handle all those situations. There's always going to be a level of complexity. But how can we modernise the rules so they're easier to understand and easier to apply so golfers can play confidently that they at least understand the basics?"
The same report quoted multiple major champion Jordan Spieth as saying that when he received his first Rules of Golf booklet at a junior tournament, he "never opened it''.
Dustin Johnson had a similar thought. "The USGA sends you that rule book, but I don't think it's ever made it out from the envelope to the trash can," Johnson said. "There so many rules that don't make any sense. They could make it a lot simpler and a lot better."
Thomas Pagel told Associated Press that the need was great. "Golfers want to play by the rules," he said. "They just find it challenging at times for the book to allow them to do that.”
Simon Magdulski says it is about ownership of the rules. "It's really important that we end up with a set of rules that the golfing public feels is relevant to the current day and that the rules themselves pass the pub test,'' he said. "The rules shouldn't belong to people like me, we live and breathe it and have an understanding of it, but that's all very well. We want something that the golfer feels as though they have a reasonable understanding of. ''
THE RULES OF GOLF: A SHORT HISTORY
*First published in 1744, specific to one club, the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith in Scotland
*Increased over time as club numbers grew.
*R and A produced a set of rules in 1899, adopted by the USGA.
*The first joint rules codified by R and A and USGA in 1952.
*Many changes have followed, including 'Decisions of the Rules of Golf'. The most recent edition has 1200 decisions.