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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Pros and Cons of Relaxed Rules Golf

There's been a lot of effort put forth lately to try and make golf more accessible to beginners, and I guess most of you have heard about GC's latest contribution to the efforts. It's called "Relaxed Rules Golf" and it's stirred up a wide range of emotions. Tweets to GC have ranged from praise to accusations of "you're teaching people to cheat." And to kick off their efforts, GC sponsored a "Relaxed Rules" Tournament on Tuesday, to get some feedback directly from the golfers involved.

Geoff Shackelford posted his own take on the concept last Friday. He has mixed emotions on the subject as well, although he clearly falls on the side of simplifying things. For those of you who may have missed it, here are the 7 rules that make up "Relaxed Rules Golf":
  1. Maximum score is double par
  2. Penalties are all 1 stroke
  3. Limit ball search to 2 minutes
  4. Improve unfortunate lies
  5. Conceded putts allowed
  6. No equipment restrictions
  7. Use common sense
The idea is to speed up play and eliminate confusion for beginners. It uses ideas from the pros' practice rounds and from the common practices of weekend players. GC compares the concept to how weekend athletes (and even pros) typically play other sports.

Personally, I think each side of the debate has some merit. Today I thought I'd look at "Relaxed Rules Golf" (hereafter called RRG) and some of the issues raised by the concept. There are both pluses and minuses that have to be taken into account.

As much as I hate to do it, I have to begin by pointing out how blind we golfers tend to be to the shortcomings of our sport. Golf has traditionally been one of the last holdouts when it comes to discrimination, whether it's been race- or gender-oriented. We are so proud of how our game depends on the character of the individuals involved to call penalties on themselves on the course, but we completely ignore how we demean players who aren't "like us," which is just as much a matter of character but isn't legislated by the Rules.

I hear a lot of this in this rules debate. We hang on to the "letter of the law" (or "letter of the Rules," if you please) while ignoring the greater purpose of golf, which is to have fun competing with friends. We need rules for sure -- rules are how we define a level playing field for all participants -- but do they need to be as complex as they have become? This is the issue.

When weekend athletes play sports, unless they are playing in a tournament -- and this is an important aspect of these RRG rules -- they rarely play strictly by the official rules. You won't see a 3-on-3 basketball game where a "free path" foul gets called. (With all apologies to golfers who think they are the only athletes to call fouls on themselves, that is only true in tournaments. Most weekend athletes in other sports call their own fouls as well; it's just that they play by relaxed rules that ignore nitpicky fouls.)

The Rules of Golf recognize that there is more than one way to play golf. For example, they recognize stroke play, match play, and Stableford scoring systems. Stroke play counts every stroke; match play counts only holes won or lost (which allows it to use Rule 5 of RRG), and Stableford awards points (which allows it to use a rule similar to Rule #1 of RRG). So the Rules of Golf themselves set a precedent: In some forms of golf we don't need to count every single stroke, even though rules are provided that could be used to regulate those strokes.

Why shouldn't we have a form of golf with extremely simplified rules for recreational play? The word recreational is extremely important here. While GC's tournament on Tuesday may be useful for gaining feedback about RRG, ultimately a GGC tournament is a contradiction of terms. By definition, each foursome is playing by a slightly different set of rules, so there can be no legitimate comparison of their scores! Rules exist for the purpose of creating a level playing ground for all the participants, and RRG rules are simply not robust enough to support tournament play. For an individual foursome, RRG might be a sensible compromise... especially since most weekend foursomes play similar rules already.

HOWEVER, there is one aspect of RRG which I haven't heard discussed very much yet, but it needs to be. (In fairness, Charlie Rymer, one of GC's most vocal supporters of RRG, mentioned this briefly Tuesday morning but I doubt that it registered on most listeners.) This one aspect of golf is different from almost any other sport and it can affect even individual recreational play.

Namely, how does RRG affect a player's handicap?

To be blunt, if you plan to turn in a score that will affect your handicap, you simply can't do it under RRG rules. If you do, you are artificially lowering your handicap. It may look good when you brag to your friends, but it'll bite you in the butt when you enter a tournament! Your handicap will be much lower under RRG rules than it would be under the official Rules of Golf, and you'll be robbing yourself of strokes that you're entitled to claim. The better your game is, the less RRG will affect your handicap -- after all, most of the RRG rules affect bad shots -- but it will adversely affect your handicap all the same.

Although most golfers don't think about it like this, your handicap is the way the official Rules compensate for your poor and penalty shots. For you skeptics out there, RRG does the same thing. The difference is that RRG compensates only in this round, with this foursome, in informal play; your handicap compensates in EVERY round, in EVERY foursome, in competition as well as informal play. If you want to build a handicap, RRG is NOT YOUR FRIEND.

But for casual rounds, practice rounds, beginners learning how to hit the ball, and better players trying to learn new shots on the course, RRG makes a lot of sense. It allows you move along at a good pace which, when you're focused on getting better and not on winning something, can be better for your attitude and help you get better sooner.

I agree with Geoff Shackelford. I'd like to see "when possible, play it as it lies" retained as the primary rule in RRG because that's the basic concept in the game. But simplifying the penalties and such so that even new players could walk up to a ball in a hazard and go "Oh, I know what to do" would be a huge boost to the game for us all.

[UPDATE: Wednesday we learned that GC gave out prizes at their tournament... but they weren't based on score. Instead, they gave prizes for the best suggestions to improve RRG. It's clear they understand the limitations of what they're proposing. You have to give them high marks for that!]

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