The New Golf Rules Coming in 2019

Renato Paratore takes a penalty drop during the 2016 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship
Penalty drops are one of the things changing when new golf rules go into effect in 2019. David Cannon/Getty Images

The biggest changes to the Rules of Golf that most of us have seen in our golfing lifetimes are coming in 2019.

The sport's governing bodies - the USGA and R&A - announced in early March 2017, following a 5-year review of the current rules, a sweeping set of proposed changes that will go into effect beginning in 2019. Most of the changes accomplish one (or more) of three goals:

  • Simplification. Make the Rules of Golf easier to understand and abide by.
  • Make the rule less punitive through the elimination of some penalties.
  • And help the game speed up a bit through rules changes that target small improvements to pace of play.

The current rule book covers 34 rules; the simplified, new golf rules will consist of 24 rules. The original rules of golf were only 13 sentences long.

All the changes at this point in time are considered proposed changes. The USGA and R&A will accept feedback for months to come. It's possible that not every proposed change will eventually be adopted. But it's likely they will, at least with a few minor adjustments.

We'll go over some of the biggest changes here, then point you to large caches of resource materials that cover the 2019 rules changes in great depth.

Go In-Depth With USGA/R&A Resources

In early 2018, the USGA and R&A released the full text of the new rules in .pdf form, as well as various explainers to help golfers take it all in. Here are links to some of those items; we strongly recommend you spend some time on the R&A or USGA websites exploring the 2019 Rules. (Note: The following links go to the USGA website but all these articles can also be found on the R&A site.)

The 5 Key Rules Changes in 2019

There are many new golf rules coming in 2019. The modernization project is a big project. We don't have to guess about the five biggest changes, though: an infographic explaining the five key changes was created by the USGA and R&A. Those five key new rules are:

  1. The advent of "penalty areas" and relaxed rules in those areas. "Penalty area" is a new concept that includes water hazards, but grounds crews at a golf course can also mark areas such as waste bunkers or thick stands of trees as "penalty areas." Golfers will be able to do things such as grounding a club and moving loose impediments that are currently banned in hazards.
  2. Golfers won't be required to follow a precise method of dropping a ball, as in the current rules where extending an arm outward and dropping from shoulder height is required. In the new rules, a golfer will drop the ball from knee height.
  3. You'll be able to leave the flagstick in the hole when playing from on the green, rather than going to the trouble (and taking the time) to remove it, as now required.
  4. Spike marks on the green and any other damage to a green done by shoes or a club will be OK to repair prior to putting.
  5. And the time allowed to search for a possibly lost golf ball is decreased from five minutes to three minutes.

Some Things That Were Penalties ... Won't Be

Having to penalize oneself strokes on the golf course is a terrible feeling. But that feeling may be felt a little less often come 2019. Under the proposed changes, some actions that currently result in penalties no longer will. We've already seen a couple of them above: leaving the flagstick in when putting; tapping down spike marks in your putting line.

The most significant relaxing of penalties pertains to a golf ball moving after address. In the past, if a ball moved it was automatically assumed the golfer caused it, resulting in a penalty (even when the ball was moved by​ the wind). That was relaxed in 2016. But beginning in 2019, it has to be known (or virtually certain) that a golfer caused the ball to move for there to be a penalty. Absent that certainty ... no penalty.

Grounding one's club in the "penalty area" will be OK, as will moving loose impediments.

And if a golf ball accidentally deflects off a golfer after a shot - for example, hitting a bunker face and bouncing back into the golfer - there will be no penalty.

Changes That Help Speed Up Play

We've already seen some of these, too, in the 5 Key Changes section: decreasing the amount of time allotted to a lost-ball search; simplifying the drop procedure, which will eliminate many re-drops that result from the current procedure; and leaving the flagstick in while putting, if preferred.

The big change is that the USGA and R&A will encourage recreational golfers to play "ready golf" in stroke play, rather than abiding by the longstanding tradition of the golfer who is farthest from the hole always hitting first. Ready play simply means that golfers in a grouping play when ready.

The governing bodies will also encourage "continuous putting" in stroke play: if your first putt is close to the hole, go ahead and putt out rather than marking and waiting.

And recreational golfers will be encouraged to play golf using a "double par" scoring standard (pick up after reaching double the hole's par).

A couple other significant changes in the 2019 updates:

  • Caddies won't be allowed to stand behind their golfer to help align him or her as the golfer takes a stance.
  • Embedded lies anywhere other than in a bunker will be eligible for free relief.

If you fancy yourself a student of the golf rules and of golf history, then we strongly recommend a website that serves both your interests: The Historical Rules of Golf. It tracks the development of the rules over the decades and even over the centuries.