Golf rules are changing soon, and it’s not the first time!

Golf rules are changing on January 1, 2019 – and it’s not the first time!

The Rules of Golf are changing. Get ready. Accept it. All the grumbling in the world isn’t going to alter the fact that on January 1, 2019, it’s going to be a new game we’re playing, albeit on familiar terrain.

This isn’t the first time golf’s Rules have changed and it won’t be the last. Our Rules need to welcome players around the world who swing their sticks on some of the most diverse playing fields imaginable and sometimes under extraordinarily challenging conditions.

Our current 34 Rules began as 13 local rules set down by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1744 in conjunction with the first Open Championship. They are a model of common courtesy and common sense welded to the particularities of local conditions.

Over the subsequent two and a half centuries, the rules elaborated, grew, were complicated by multiple governing bodies and diverse playing conditions. Throughout the process, however, our game has honored the efficacy of local rules, deviations from the general designed to help the game remain flexible and accommodative even while it’s framed uniformly.

The history of golf in Afghanistan illustrates my point. The game was introduced to Afghanistan in 1911 and popularized there by Habibullah Khan. When he was assassinated in 1919 Khan was buried on one of his golf courses, and after his death the game lost popularity, eclipsed by soccer and cricket.

Half a century passed. Afghanistan was trying to develop itself as a tourist destination for Westerners and Kabul Golf Club underwent a renovation. The game began to revive. War came again to a country that’s lived with and survived wars for millennia.

Still, over a period of 50 more years the game resurfaced in Afghanistan despite kidnappings, beheadings, Taliban attacks, and extreme poverty. As you can imagine, there were some local rules in force. Tanks guarded the Kabul Golf Club fairways and players either brought a security guard or carried their own AK-47s. There were no gimmes on the putting surface – they weren’t green – and there was no lift, clean, and place on the rock-strewn fairways. In Afghanistan at war, it was golf as the game was originally played on the Scottish links, rough, challenging, on otherwise useless land.

Which brings me to a more immediate and yet equally traumatic historical moment when the golf rules adapted to changed political and cultural exigencies, 1940 war-torn England and the Richmond Golf Club, a lush, parkland-style track southwest of London.

The Club put in place seven local Rules designed to enhance golfers’ safety under the contemporary reality of war (reprinted in the Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2018):

  1. Players are asked to collect Bomb and Shrapnel splinters to save these causing damage to mowing machines.
  2. In competitions, during gunfire, or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
  3. The positions of known delayed-action bombs are marked by red flags placed as reasonably, but not guarantees safe distance.
  4. Shrapnel and/or bomb splinters on the Fairways, or in Bunkers within a club’s length of a ball, may be moved without penalty, and no penalty shall be incurred if a ball is thereby caused to move accidentally.
  5. A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hold without penalty.
  6. A ball lying in a crater may be lifted and dropped not nearer the hole preserving the line to the hole without penalty.
  7. A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty, one stroke.

Thankfully, the current changes in the Rules aren’t fueled by war. But these new Rules that go into effect on January 1, 2019 empower local club and golf association Rules Committees to thoughtfully put in place local rules designed to enhance player safety and enjoyment of the game. Now we need to sit down together and start talking about how to maximize this opportunity.

We can either welcome this moment, deliberate, discuss, debate, and act, or we can complain, demur, and find excuses to not act. The choice now rests with clubs and local golf associations to render the game we play adapted to our unique and special conditions.