USGA official and Inverness Club board member Jerry Lemieux, of Toledo, holds the microphone for a question as pro golfer Jordan Spieth conducts a clinic at club in May of 2014. BLADE/JETTA FRASER
Do you know the ruling if a golf ball comes to rest next to a spider web or a cactus?
Probably not, but don’t blame yourself. Most everyday golfers cannot recite golf’s verbose and arcane rule book.
Someone who can is Jerry Lemieux, a local rules official who’s officiated some of golf’s most prestigious tournaments — the U.S. Open, U.S. Women’s Open, U.S. Senior Open, and U.S. Amateur among them. He’s also the director of rules for the NCAA Women’s Golf Championships.
Present the most ridiculous scenario to Lemieux, and he will explain your options. A spider web is considered a loose impediment, and golfers are permitted to wrap an arm or leg in a towel to protect themselves from needles when they play a shot. However, they cannot cover the cactus with a towel.
Last week, golf’s two governing bodies — the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club — released a draft of modern rules that would be the sport’s most sweeping changes since 1744. The main objective is to bring common sense back into the equation.
“Anything that tries to get the rules the same everywhere around the world in a good thing,” Lemieux said.
“For two organizations that have had a historical reputation for being stodgy and set in their ways and being governed by history and the ancient traditions of the game, I think it was very forward thinking of them to really look at the game with a clean sheet of paper. While they’ve tried to maintain the two big traditions of the game — play the ball as it lies and the course as you find it — I think they’ve tried to make things a little simpler in the way the words have been written. It’s a great positive step for the game, for the rules, and for the players.”
The proposed changes, which received almost universal praise from professionals on all the worldwide tours, would reduce the number of rules from 34 to 24, with some of the modifications falling under the category of significant.
For instance, players no longer will be assessed a one-shot penalty if their ball accidentally moves or if their club touches the ground in a hazard. If you’re in a sand trap, you have the option of taking a two-stroke penalty and dropping out of it.
Drops no longer have to be at shoulder length. If you so wish, you can drop one inch above the ground.
The change that would perhaps most impact is a proposal to penalize caddies who stand behind their player on the green to aid them in lining up putts. It’s a routine practice on the LPGA Tour.
There will be a six-month period of public feedback before the proposal is finalized in 2018 and becomes effective in 2019. Lemieux thinks most of the proposals will be adopted. If anything, there could be additions, especially involving out of bounds and stroke and distance penalties.
“I think golf’s emphasis on the rules can sometimes turn people away from it,” Rory McIlroy said at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
“To modernize and make it simple is a good thing. With what’s happened in the last couple of years, with some rulings and high-profile things that have happened at crucial stages in tournaments, people who look at that and might want to get into the game say, ‘You know what? It’s too complicated.’ ”
In 1947, the rule book was 67 pages. It’s now 163 pages when you exclude chapters on equipment and amateur status. Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status, said the objective was to simplify the rules around the globe and make them more understandable to everyday golfers.
Several rules were aimed at pace of play, which has come under fire in recent years as rounds nearing six hours have become commonplace on the PGA and LPGA tours. Players will only have three minutes to search for a lost ball, down from five. One proposed change might have the opposite effect, however — the ability to tap down spike marks on the green.
“The rules over the years have gotten more and more complicated,” Lemieux said. “To be fair to the people that write the rules, football fields are always 100 yards long and basketball rims are 10-feet high. There are a lot of variables in golf. Over the years, in an effort to try and be fair and equitable, we’ve ended up in a case where the rules have gotten very lawyerly. They’re dense and not very approachable. Most players know the basics, but [the rules have] gotten really complicated.
“I don’t think this will be the end. I think it’s the first step in a process that may take 10 years to get where you really want to get to. This is revolutionary, but there’s a piece of it that’s evolutionary as well.”