We may be seeing this a lot early on, a PGA Tour player talking with a rules official, as the new rules go into place starting with the Sentry Tournament of Champions this week. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
By Dave Shedloski
KAPALUA, Hawaii — Bryson DeChambeau put in a full day of practice on Monday at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort, and he was the last player in the Sentry Tournament of Champions field to leave the course on New Year’s Eve.
His final order of business was on the practice putting green, where he was further testing the viability of leaving the flagstick in for even the shortest putts. Significant changes to the Rules of Golf take effect today, including the rule that previously made it a penalty when a ball played from the green struck the flagstick. No more.
“After the testing we’ve seen, and what we just did out there now, absolutely, I’m going to leave it in. I’m going to do it until I can see that it messes me up,” the erudite youngster averred. “For the most part, we’ve seen it to be a benefit and not a detriment. That’s from anywhere.”
So, just to throw out a number, he would leave it in for a three-footer?
“Heck, potentially a one-footer. From anywhere,” he clarifies. “How many times do you just walk up to your ball and you knock it against the pin and it goes in? You’re at your local club just out there beating it around. Boink, dink, it goes in. Every time. Right?”
The several changes to the Rules of Golf were on a lot of players’ minds as the start of the first event of the new year approaches on Thursday. It was on their minds, but not necessarily in them. No one who was asked, not even the detail-oriented DeChambeau, could say he was fully informed on all the significant alterations the USGA and R&A have instituted. Only Justin Thomas, son of a PGA professional, said he’d spent meaningful time brushing up, and he wasn’t comfortable with all the nuances, either.
Perhaps anticipating this, tournament officials affixed on the locker room wall a large poster illustration of most of the new rules. And the USGA’s Thomas Pagel, senior director, rules of golf and amateur status, made a trip to Maui and planned an afternoon availability session in the clubhouse for any player who had a question.
“I’ll definitely be looking into it over the next few days,” said Brandt Snedeker, admitting he hadn’t yet done his homework. “I want to know so I don’t do something stupid and cost myself a penalty shot. I think we’re all trying to figure it all out.”
“I know a few of them. I don’t know many of them,” Rory McIlroy admitted. “But that’s why we have rules officials. That’s why they’re here.”
Yes, the professional back stoppers, otherwise known as the PGA Tour rules officials, will have their services further solicited in the coming weeks, it appears.
“I feel like the rules officials are going to be leaned on fairly heavily here in the first few months,” Paul Casey said with an impish grin, knowing he would be one of the players responsible for the rules officials’ expanding workload. “I trust the PGA Tour to make sure we don’t do anything that would cost us strokes.”
“My job is to execute every shot to the best of my ability,” DeChambeau said. “I know most of the rules, but I can’t say I know all of the changes. It’s good they have our backs.”
Xander Schauffele was among many who worried that the incessant summoning of officials could further slow the pace of play. He said he was familiar with most of the key changes, but needed to study up. Casey said the same and planned to perhaps sit down with one of the officials before Thursday.
“I’ve read them, but I think there’s a difference between reading them and fully understanding them,” Casey said. “We have to see how the game is affected. I would say I haven’t done as much research as that fellow there.”
He was nodding at DeChambeau, who seems to be the only player who has made up his mind about taking advantage of the new flagstick guidelines. Casey thought perhaps on longer putts he might leave it in. Snedeker wasn’t sure. Neither was McIlroy. Jason Day said he couldn’t envision a scenario where he wouldn’t instruct his caddie to pull the pin.
“I mean no offense, but I can’t really take myself seriously if I kept the pin in,” said Justin Thomas. “I just feel like it would be very, very weird.”
Bubba Watson posted a video on Twitter on Sunday showing him putting on the eighth green at the Plantation Course. His caddie, Ted Scott, removes the flagstick as the ball passes by the hole, but then it begins to track back towards it. Scott reinserts the flagstick just before the ball dives in, but the flagstick is swaying as it drops. Did it on the first take, Watson said.
“So, what’s the rule there?” he wonders.
As for a development everyone seems to like, there’s the new rule regarding tamping down spike marks. No more advantage for early starters compared to late starters. It’s a level-playing-field kind of provision. But wait. There is reason for caution.
“Tamping down a spike mark is potentially the smartest and the dumbest change,” DeChambeau said. “There’s a balance to it, and if you go to the deep end on it, you could literally create a trench down your line. You just know that someone will do that.”
“I think some people might get carried away with that,” McIlroy added.
Casey joked that he could be a culprit. And he was just joking. “I’m going to be practicing my tamping down of spike marks,” he said with a laugh. “Maybe someone will come along and invent a giant putter with a really flat bottom to make it easier.”
Welcome to the new world, golfers.