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Rulebook overhaul is welcome - but some changes will need precise policing

Rulebook overhaul is welcome - but some changes will need precise policing

Integrity lies at the heart of golf and without it there is not much of a game left.

Footballers can steal a few yards for a more advanced throw-in, a batter can stand their ground after edging to a wicketkeeper and a rugby player sneaks offside to disrupt the opposition and none suffer any great damage to their reputation.

There is no such latitude for golfers. Breaking a rule to gain an edge is deemed unacceptable at any level of the sport. 

It is worth remembering this central tenet as we head into a landmark year for the sport which will be played under a radically overhauled rulebook. Many of the changes place an increased dependency on a player's integrity.

Intent is a key fundamental in the shake-up, which reduces the number of rules from 34 to 24 to make golf easier to understand and quicker to play.

Alterations such as allowing the flag to remain in the hole for putts on the green and dropping from knee rather than shoulder height have grabbed most attention.

But also buried in the new regulations are important guidelines on intent. This is vital because there are no longer penalties for "accidentally" moving your ball (as long as it replaced to its original spot) and there is much more latitude for gardening on putting surfaces.

The phrase "virtual certainty" crops up throughout the new rulebook. It does, though, create a grey area that could be abused by less scrupulous players.

There is a somewhat nebulous feel compared with previous editions, where precision was paramount.

"Known or virtually certain means more than just possible or probable," it states. The book goes on: "….all reasonably available information shows that it is at least 95% likely that the event in question happened."

For most golfers that should suffice for questions such as whether a ball was moved accidentally or whether it went into a penalty area but, in reality, how do you measure 95% certainty?

This is 100% subjective and when you move into such realms there is always scope for argument and controversy. To borrow from football, was it ball to hand or hand to ball?

Nevertheless the changes should be broadly welcomed. The updated regulations are easier to comprehend, and should make the game quicker and more enjoyable to play and watch.

"The new rules are more in tune with what golfers would like and are easier to understand and apply," said David Rickman, the R&A's executive director of governance.

But there are a couple of areas of concern. Previously players were only allowed to repair ball pitchmarks on greens, now damage including spike marks becomes fair game.

"That worries me a little for slow play," commented Open champion Francesco Molinari. "But it depends how guys take it.

"Hopefully people will have some common sense and will not be tapping down the whole way in from 15 feet."

It is worth remembering that it is now enshrined in the rules that players should aim to take no more than 40 seconds over a shot, so extracurricular gardening on greens would eat into this time.

But there is scope for abuse, particularly on the PGA Tour which is more lax in penalising slow play than its European counterparts.

"I think it is one we are going to have to watch," said US veteran Steve Stricker. "It may take some extra time on the greens, which we don't want."

On the flip side, allowing the repair of spike marks means players will not need to be as careful about stepping on "through lines" beyond the hole. This means holing out short putts should be faster.

Allowing us to putt with the flag in rather than waiting for a playing partner to attend the pin should save time too. But there will be those who will prefer to have the flag out and those who prefer it to be in the hole, which could lead to a general increase in faffing about.

American Bryson de Chambeau, the self-styled golf physicist, reckons there is an advantage to be had putting with the flag in the hole if the stick is soft enough - I kid you not.

The pin being removed, then replaced, then taken back out of the hole may become a tiresome process for other golfers and watching galleries.

But every professional seeks to use the rules to their advantage and that has always been the case. It is why matters of intent will need careful policing, which may not prove entirely straightforward.

More certain is the fact that all golfers should download the apps available from the R&A and US Golf Association to equip us for the new golfing landscape in 2019.

In the meantime, here is a top 10 of the main changes:

1. Penalty and free drops to be made from knee rather than shoulder height.

2. Only three minutes rather than five allowed to search for a lost ball.

3. A damaged club, even as a result of abuse in anger, can be repaired and used in remainder of round.

4. No penalty for hitting flagstick in the hole with a shot played on the green.

5. No penalty for accidentally moving your ball as long as it is replaced to the correct spot.

6. Spike marks can be repaired on the green.

7. No penalty for an accidental double hit.

8. It becomes possible to take a penalty drop out of a bunker.

9. Loose impediments may be removed in bunkers and the sand can be touched with a club prior to a stroke from the hazard but not in a practice swing, on the back swing or to test the surface.

10. Water hazards are now known as "penalty areas" as can other areas of courses be if so deemed by the committee. 

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