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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Rules Bifurcation Arrives... in a Small Way

It appears that the USGA and the R&A finally decided that some form of bifurcation in The Rules of Golf was inevitable. And it was the pace of play issue that finally forced their hand.

The Rules of Golf book

There are four main rule changes that have been emphasized in the announcements over the last day or two. You can get the lowdown from this article at, this one at and this one at The Golf Digest article also has a graphic showing how the new bifurcated rule will work. Here's what that graphic looks like, although the original is much easier to read:

Graphic showing the new two-stroke rule

Yes, it's the stroke-and-distance rule. Most of us hate the extra trip back to the tee when we lose a ball or simply hit it out-of-bounds. Here's how the Golfweek article summed up the change:
Balls lost or out of bounds: Alternative to stroke-and-distance penalties: A new local rule will be available in January 2019, permitting committees to allow golfers the option to drop the ball in the vicinity of where the ball is lost or out of bounds (including the nearest fairway area), under a two-stroke penalty. It addresses concerns raised at the club level about the negative impact on pace of play when a player is required to go back under stroke and distance. The local rule is not intended for higher levels of play, such as professional or elite competitions. (Key change: This is a new addition to support pace of play.)
There are two very interesting aspects of this change:
  • It's an optional local rule that courses can use. It's not required, but it's now available as a sanctioned part of the Rules.
  • Most importantly, this optional rule is NOT available to competitions involving professions or "elite amateurs."
That, my friends, is bifurcation. The Rules of Golf will now recognize a rule that affects top-level competitions but not regular amateurs. And it's a rule that will be instituted in order to speed up play.

I'm perfectly fine with this change. Let's face it, most amateurs don't obey the stroke-and-distance rule anyway! This will, as most would argue, simply bring the rule into line with the way most players already play.

But -- and this is just an observation -- I expect this change to have some unexpected side effects. After all, most handicaps are determined by casual rounds, not by official rounds in a tournament. The two-stroke penalty assumes that a player would go back to the tee and hit his or her tee ball somewhere near the spot where they take a drop... but we all know that doesn't always happen.

The handicaps determined through those casual rounds could end up being used by some amateurs when they play in various levels of tournament play. Will it be a large number? Probably not, although this local rule does open the door for some "creative handicapping" if players so choose, and they could argue that they did it legally. (Those handicaps would be better than the player actually deserves, so they might get into a tournament they would not otherwise qualify for.) I don't expect that to be a big problem, as most players tampering with their handicaps would prefer to make them worse so they could sandbag it a bit.

Again, that's just an observation and, from a practical standpoint, it probably won't amount to much. But it's the sort of problem that bifurcation brings to the table...

And I suspect the USGA and the R&A might have chosen this rule to be a test case for bifurcation. Misusing this rule would hurt a player more than help, so it seems a safe way to see how bifurcation might affect the intergrity of the game.

But make no mistake about it: The ruling bodies have given us what we wanted. For better or worse, bifurcation will now officially enter the game of golf, effective 01 January 2019.

Now we'll just have to see where it leads.

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