Common sense prevails in golf's new rules

Until Monday, golfers were disqualified for not penalizing themselves for an infraction they might not know they had incurred and thus signing an incorrect scorecard. The new rule changes reduce some of the harshest of golf's punishments. Keyur Khamar/PGA Tour

In the never-ending match between the draconian Rules of Golf and the laws of common sense, common sense scored a decided advantage with Monday's announcement of the game's latest amendments.

To fully appreciate the gravity of these changes, it helps to review the past.

It was Valentine's Day, 1987, and Craig Stadler wasn't feeling much love from the golf gods. His ball resting under a tree on the 14th hole of Torrey Pines' South Course in the third round of the Andy Williams Open, the curmudgeonly Walrus was forced to punch a shot from his knees. Not wanting to dirty his trousers, he placed a towel on the ground, later explaining, "I didn't want to finish the round looking like a gardener."

The next day, he looked like a contender. Stadler was vying for the title when a television viewer from Iowa called the course to point out that he should have been penalized 2 strokes for "building a stance." Officials allowed him to complete the round -- he would have finished in a share of second place -- then informed Stadler that, because he didn't assess the penalty to himself, he had signed an incorrect scorecard the previous day, resulting in disqualification.

Can you imagine that? The outcome of a professional sporting event determined by ... faulty paperwork.

It would sound preposterous if it hadn't become so common.

Over the past 28 years, scores of pro golfers have unknowingly committed a violation, failed to penalize themselves and signed their scorecards, only to be found guilty by a jury of slow-motion cameras and whistleblowing TV viewers. Unless their name was Tiger Woods and the tournament was the Masters, the penalty for these infractions was steep. Like Stadler, they were disqualified.

The punishment never fit the crime -- but thanks to Rule 6-6d, officially introduced Monday, that will no longer be the case.

A new addition to the Rules of Golf, even the subtitle for this one oozes golf-ese: "Limited Exception to Disqualification Penalty for Submission of Incorrect Score Card." Don't let the terminology scare you off. What this means is that if an infraction is uncovered after signing, the result will be the penalty of the original violation, plus an extra 2 strokes instead of a disqualification.

Or in other words, common sense wins.

For a game that too often takes the written letter of the law too literally, this was a thankfully consistent theme throughout the latest major rule amendments.

Additionally, there now exists an amendment to Rule 18-2b, which previously stated that a penalty would be applied if a ball at rest moves after address and it wasn't known if the player was at fault. Now, if the player addresses the ball and it moves due to forces outside the player's control, there is a provision for no penalty to be assessed. There is also Rule 14-3, which modifies the penalty for what the USGA and R&A term "artificial devices or equipment." Whereas the first breach of this rule previously resulted in disqualification, swinging a training aid on the fifth tee box will now only result in a loss of hole in match play or a two-stroke penalty in medal play.

Rarely do rule-makers implement changes that are unanimously lauded, but these might fit that description. For a long time -- too long, really -- many of golf's rules failed to assimilate with our developing world. We were attempting to impart rules written before television existed into an era when technological advancements allow us to monitor golfers' actions constantly, an Orwellian society of rules connoisseurs.

The result was that too often the game looked and sounded ridiculous, like some parody of itself.

Competitors were being disqualified for committing violations that not only wouldn't have been considered cheating but didn't even give them a slight advantage.

After calling a penalty on himself that cost him the 1925 U.S. Open, Bobby Jones famously dismissed the gesture by saying, "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank." Golf remains a game of honor today; it's just catching up to the changing times.

The draconian Rules of Golf became a little less so with these latest additions, the punishment now fitting the crime in many specific cases.

Let's just call it an impressive blow for common sense.