New Rules

Why is this January special? Because it represents the once-every-four-years moment when rule changes dictated by the USGA and the R&A will go into effect. Most casual players are likely to pay little attention to these Olympian pronouncements, but Serious Golfers everywhere—and I assume this includes you—will sit up and take notice.

Most rule modifications concern minor adjustments to obscure situations. For example, as of this year, carrying a nonconforming club in your bag, but not using it, can cost you no more than two holes in match play and four shots in stroke. But each cycle it seems like there's one change that has a wider effect. Four years ago it was decriminalizing the use of a towel, hat or glove to sweep the debris from your line on a green. This year it concerns balls buried or submerged in hazards: As of 2008 you will be allowed to lift a ball from its lie in a bunker or water hazard to identify it as yours. Once you've done so, you must return the ball to its spot before you play the shot. Should you play an unidentified ball from a hazard and it turns out not to be yours, that previously forgiven transgression is now going to cost you the hole or two strokes. (Visit rules for details on all the above.)

Of course, everybody has a pet peeve about the rules. For many it's the injunction against repairing spike marks. Personally, I just don't get why balls hit out of bounds should receive a harsher penalty (stroke and distance) than balls lost in water hazards (stroke only). On all such wayward shots, the verdict should be: Add a stroke, take a drop and get moving. All these searches and returns to the tee contribute to slow play—a point, incidentally, with which the USGA has concurred at various times in decades past when it instituted that very change as an optional local rule.

Hey, guys, it's time to go back to the future. Golf's rules aren't made to be broken, but four years from now, I think they'll need another adjustment.