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Saturday, December 10, 2016

The DJ Rule, Part 2

Usually when I do a post like yesterday's about the new "DJ Rule" I don't expect much feedback. I often get a comment or two but not much else.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself in a friendly Twitter conversation (it's nice to know those really do exist!) with Jeremy Shilling and Missy Jones. Among other things, Jeremy hosts the Teeing It Up podcast on iTunes and Missy is on several rule committees, including the USGA, NCAA, LPGA and AGA.

Personally I find Twitter very frustrating because it's hard to convey nuances of meaning in 140 characters. So I've decided to do a second post on this topic, just to talk about the "whys" behind my thoughts. (Actually, I guess this is my third post since I did one called I Can Fix the "Ball Moved on the Green" Rule back in August.)

Before I start, I should emphasize something Missy said, which is (and I quote) "Give it some time to be ironed out. The process and interpretations take time." This is only a local rule at this point, a part of what Thomas Pagel calls an example of the "rule modernization changes" which the USGA hopes to implement going forward.

Having said that, let me put in my own two cents' worth, in hopes of making a positive contribution to this process. I'm afraid the post turned out longer than I intended, because it always takes longer to explain WHY than HOW.


First, remember that this rule only affects balls laying on the putting green, not in the fairway or rough or hazards. My August post also suggested possible ways to simplify those rules, but they're not important to this post.

As far as it goes, I like the USGA's new "prototype rule," especially removing the penalty for accidentally moving the ball. I think that's smart. Nobody intends to cause trouble for themselves by moving the ball. If they were really trying to gain an advantage, they wouldn't call the rule on themselves!

But my contention is that the rule doesn't go far enough, because it doesn't deal with the problem that really caused the USGA and R&A to create this local rule, which goes into effect 1 January 2017. As I wrote in yesterday's post about this new rule:
Correct me if I'm wrong, but the problem has been that players said they didn't cause the ball to move. Doesn't the rule -- as worded -- mean that the player has to say that he or she DID CAUSE the ball to move in order to replace the ball without penalty?
This isn't just a matter of a rule being difficult to enforce. It's about the PERCEPTIONS of the game that the rule causes, as well as the PRACTICALITIES of the rule's assumptions. Those are what I want to talk about today, because I think they are being ignored when they're actually at the root of the problem.


Jeremy quoted Mike Davis as saying that the USGA had been put in the awkward position of judging DJ's intent, which it didn't want to do. I agree with him.

But the new rule wouldn't have changed what happened. Here's a short version of what would have happened with the new rule in place:
  • OFFICIAL: Did you cause the ball to move?
  • DJ: No, I didn't.
  • OFFICIAL: Then we have to determine if something else could have caused it to move...
Wait, isn't that basically what happened anyway? If the player insists they didn't cause the ball to move, the new rule has no effect on the procedure!


Presumably this new 'rules simplification initiative' is, in part, about making the game more attractive to new golfers. But what did TV viewers considering the game see?

The player (in a sport that prides itself on self-policing) called attention to a ball movement that no one could see without severe enhancement of HD footage. If DJ had said nothing, it's unlikely anyone would have noticed, but he followed protocol and told his playing partner. The official came up. The player said he didn't move the ball. The official at the hole agreed.

Then a four-person rules committee halfway across the grounds, that wasn't personally at the spot of the supposed infraction, started studying the video footage and they said, as reported by,
"As we looked at the video we had concerns," Jeff Hall, the USGA's managing director of Rules and Open Championships, said on-air during the Fox Sports broadcast.
They then overruled DJ AND THE ON-SITE OFFICIAL and levied a one-stroke penalty.

What did TV viewers learn from this?
  • The rules are so complicated that the player can't even know if he breaks them without outside help. Viewers unfamiliar with the game won't know that the player needs a ruling to know whether he plays the ball as it lies or moves it back... and that making the wrong choice is a penalty.
  • The rules are so complicated that even the on-site official can't be sure he's making a correct ruling... so officials don't enforce rules, they merely offer opinions that may or may not be correct.
  • The rules are so complicated that a rules committee, the members of which aren't even at the scene of the ruling, is required in order to make decisions... and their decisions overrule the people with actual firsthand involvement.
  • Perhaps most damning of all, golfers claim that they are self-policing... but the ruling body doesn't accept their explanation of what happened. "We had concerns" in the quote above basically means "we didn't believe that what he said was what actually happened." You can argue that saying "we believe he lied" is NOT what the ruling body meant (and I'd agree that it doesn't have to mean that), but it IS how the majority of the viewing public probably understood it.
Tell me.. if you're considering taking up a game and found that you were expected to call penalties on yourself BUT that your version of events (or even those of an on-site official) weren't sufficient for the rules committee, would you want to take up the game? I don't think so.

But it's even worse when you consider the practicalities involved.


The Rules of Golf exist to provide a level playing field for all competitors. Players call penalties on themselves for the same reason -- they don't want to gain an unfair advantage over the field.

BUT WHAT CONSTITUTES AN UNFAIR ADVANTAGE? To me, this is where the proposed rule falls far short of its goal. Let's go back to DJ's ruling.

The fifth hole at Oakmont Country Club is a par-4 that played roughly 382 yards, according to this page. DJ's ruling concerned a ball that moved  -- as do the vast majority of rulings this rule is intended to address -- AT MOST one-quarter of an inch. The original putt was, what, maybe two feet?

Take a yardstick and lay it down on the floor. Along one edge place one golf ball 24 inches from the end, on the other side place another golf ball 23.75 inches from the end. Can you tell me that you truly believe that quarter-inch had ANY effect on the makeability of that putt?

Let me rephrase that. Can you tell me it mattered AND KEEP A STRAIGHT FACE WHILE YOU DO?

For the vast majority of players this proposed rule would affect, a moving ball has moved "a dimple" or "an eighth of an inch." A MOVEMENT THAT SMALL HAS NO MEASURABLE EFFECT ON THE GAME. And yet we'll waste 10-20 minutes determining what caused the ball to move and whether it should be replaced or not.

Perhaps such things somehow make very traditionally-minded golfers and rules officials feel that "the integrity of the game is being preserved" in some way, but what do you think potential golfers watching this unfold on TV think?

I suspect the word insanity is probably involved.

The problem is that we haven't distinguished between meaningful rules and meaningless rules. We want to argue "it's the principle of the thing" when, in fact, the problem is an obsession with perfection where perfection can't possibly exist. As Bob Rotella said, "Golf is NOT a game of perfect," so we should accept that and make our rules accordingly. That's the only way we're going to successfully simplify them.


To make a useful rule that can be easily and consistently applied in a fair manner, we need to examine our assumptions about that rule. I actually have two suggestions and, while I believe the second one is the better one, I doubt that any of the rulemakers will seriously consider it.

Missy noted in one of her tweets that proximity, time and action have been the factors by which Rule 18-2 has always been interpreted. But perhaps, given the new local rule -- which eliminates the penalty -- we should reassess which of those factors still matter. Without the penalty, these factors now only determine whether the ball is replaced or not.

I question how important any of them are now, now that there's no penalty.

My first suggestion, from the post I did back in August, is simply to set a threshold for proximity. I suggested that, if you moved your putter within one ball width of your ball before it moved, you are deemed to have moved it. If you didn't, then you are deemed NOT to have moved it.

This is a simple solution that could be easily verified on video, if need be. And players would know beforehand -- "If I sole my putter behind the ball and then it moves, I moved it. Just replace the ball." After all, since the new rule removes the penalty, the only question now becomes whether players replace their ball after movement or not.

That's simple. It's easy to determine, easy to enforce. Forget time and action and anything else -- if you placed or moved your putter within one ball width of it, you moved the ball. Players know immediately whether to replace the ball or leave it where it came to rest. And since every player knows the distance between putter and ball that determines it, it's fair to everybody. We spend ten seconds instead of ten minutes on this, and we get on with the game.

But back then I was trying to make the penalty easy to assess. Now, since the USGA and the R&A have removed the penalty, I believe there's an even simpler solution.

My second -- and preferred -- solution is even simpler: If your ball moves on the green after you've marked it, for whatever reason, simply replace the ball and get on with the game. Look, there's no penalty either way, right? And if you were able to mark the ball in the first place, then there's a solid place for the ball to sit, right? Then replace the ball and replay it from that spot, the way you originally planned. That's fair to everybody.

And if conditions have changed and the ball will no longer stay put, we have other rules that regulate that, correct? Rules like "place the ball on the nearest spot where it WILL stay" and "suspend play until the course is playable again." If those circumstances come up, we're already prepared.

But in my opinion, since the penalty has been removed, there is simply no longer any need for complicated rules regulating unintended ball movement on the green. One or two unambiguous sentences can do the job from now on.

And that's my two cents.

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