One of golf’s most unjust rules is finally going to change. Effective January 1st, courses and tournament committees can enact a Local Rule that says if you, your caddie, your partner or your equipment accidentally move a ball or ball marker on the putting green, there is no penalty and the ball should be replaced.
This Local Rule, which has been announced jointly by the USGA and R&A, also applies to your opponent or opponents in match play, the other side’s caddies and equipment. “We’re golfers, too, and when we saw players penalized for minor movement of a ball on the putting green, it didn’t sit well with us,” says Thomas Pagel, senior director of the Rules of Golf and amateur status for the USGA. “I do hope people are excited about the change and it’s well received.” Pagel added he could envision a time when this Local Rule becomes a permanent one— such as when the next revisions to the Rules of Golf go into effect in 2020—but “I’m not going to guarantee anything,” he says. The reaction from professional tournament organizers has been extremely positive. All the major pro tours, and the Masters, have confirmed they will use the new rule in 2017.
It was created, in part, as a reaction to the messy rules situation that impacted Dustin Johnson during the U.S. Open at Oakmont in June, but Pagel says it was being considered prior to that. Johnson, who won the championship, was deemed to have accidentally moved his ball on the fifth green in the final round, and received a one-stroke penalty, although video evidence seemed inconclusive and Johnson said he didn’t cause it to move. The way Rule 18-2 and Decision 18-2/0.5 are worded, if the weight of evidence indicates it’s more likely than not that a player caused the ball to move, then the penalty must be assessed.
In Johnson’s case, the USGA said there was no other reason more likely than Johnson that caused the ball to move. If this new Local Rule is not enacted, Rules 18-2 (ball at rest moved by player, partner, caddie or equipment), 18-3 (ball at rest moved by opponent, caddie or equipment in match play) and 20-1 (lifting and marking) would still apply. These rules specify a one-stroke penalty for moving a ball or ball marker, unless they were moved accidentally in the act of marking or lifting a ball under a rule. Then there is no penalty. In any of these scenarios, the ball or ball marker must be replaced.
Keep in mind that this Local Rule only applies if a ball is on the green—by definition, when any part of the ball is touching the putting surface. Also, if the ball should move on the green as a result of wind, water or some other natural cause such as gravity, the ball must be played from its new position. A ball marker that moves as a result of strong winds, etc., should be replaced. But for the moment, the local rule is as follows (from the official press release): If a committee wishes to introduce this Local Rule, the following wording is recommended: “Rules 18-2, 18-3 and 20-1 are modified as follows: When a player’s ball lies on the putting green, there is no penalty if the ball or ballmarker 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 Local Rule applies only when the player’s ball or ball-marker lies on the putting green and any movement is accidental. Note: If it is determined that a player’s ball on the putting green was moved as a result of wind, water or some other natural cause such as the effects of gravity, the ball must be played as it lies from its new location. A ball-marker moved in such circumstances is replaced.”