New USGA Rules and Golf Course Maintenance

By Matt Ceplo, Rockland Country Club


Welcome to spring. With the new USGA Rules of Golf now in effect, I was wondering what impact they would have at area courses. I have been watching the pros playing on television with renewed interest and watching the new Rules come into effect. The most obvious new Rule is players leaving the flagstick in while putting. At first, I thought this would be my chance to design a shock absorbing flagstick and make millions on the show Shark Tank. A quick look at the definition of a flagstick shows that, "Padding or shock absorbent material that might unduly influence the movement of the ball is prohibited."  So much for my million-dollar idea.


In all seriousness, I also have to acknowledge that I am by no means a Rules expert. The good news is that these new Rules don't require you to be an expert, but they do require some analysis of the course by a Committee to review the way in which the course is marked. I would strongly recommend getting your professional staff involved in this process. One Rule change is that there are no more "hazards". The new term is "penalty area".  Here is the new Rule as written by the USGA:


New Rule: Under the new Rules, "Water hazards" are superseded by the expanded concept of "penalty areas", and Rule 17 provides the same basic options for relief that existed under the previous Rules:


" A penalty area includes both (1) all areas previously defined in the Rules as a water hazard or lateral water hazard and (2) any other areas the Committee chooses to define as penalty areas (with recommended guidelines provided in the Official Guide).


" Penalty areas may therefore include areas such as deserts, jungles, lava rock fields, etc.


" The term "hazard" is no longer used in the Rules.


Reasons for Change:

It has been recognized that requiring areas to contain water seems to be a somewhat arbitrary reason for permitting such relief options.

For reasons such as safety and pace of play, many Committees had previously sought to expand the use of lateral water hazards by marking areas that did not contain water and by marking water hazards as red where that was not specifically contemplated by the Rules.

The broader use of "penalty areas" allows Committees to respond to the wide range of settings in which golf is played by giving relief from areas that present similar obstacles to "water hazards" such as difficulties with finding and playing a ball and similar practical needs about pace of play.


I'm pretty sure there are no courses in our area that have to worry about deserts, lava or jungle, but there are several that have some real penal native areas. Are there areas at your course where this new Rule should be implemented? A prominent USGA Official recommended analyzing the way the hole is intended to be played and mark areas accordingly. The Rules were made to be simpler and I think that once we get used to them, they will be. Until then, things may seem a little complicated. It may take a season or two before the effects are truly noticed. I personally like this change because new penalty area options can encourage more courses to include and increase native areas. The penalty for hitting into them will not be as severe-where players formerly faced a stroke-and-distance penalty for a lost ball, players would now take a drop in their determined relief area for hitting into these penalty areas.


And let's be honest, unless you were playing in the club championship, how many of us were actually going back to where we played from? Most everyone just drops a ball and continues anyway. This will help speed up play, make the game more enjoyable, and if we can increase native areas, they will help us save water, fertilizer, pesticides, and maintenance costs. That, in turn, will help improve the perception of golf courses with the public. So, I hope everyone will take a look at your course and see if there is potential for using this new Rule to help us keep courses environmentally friendly and make the game more enjoyable at the same



Susan O’Dowd

Executive Secretary