At the top table sat David Bonsall, chairman of the R&A’s Rules Committee, David Rickman, R&A Executive Director of Governance and Chief of Staff, and John Paramor, the European Tour’s Chief Referee. In the audience was perhaps a 75-strong mixture of European Tour professionals, their caddies and a sprinkling of broadcasters who included former players Wayne Riley, Richard Boxall, Andrew Coltart, Jamie Spence, Ken Brown and Sam Torrance.
All were gathered in a meeting room adjacent to the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, on the eve of the 14th Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, what will be the first European Tour event played under the myriad new rules put into place on January 1.
Paramor spoke first. Holding up a copy of the new “player’s rule book”, the 43-year veteran announced the text “easier to understand and navigate” before launching into a nine-hole long series of examples designed to illustrate how the changes will affect play on golf’s second-biggest tour. “Imagine yourself as the player in all of this,” he said.
Almost an hour later, Paramor sat down to loud and ironic cheers from a group that had struggled manfully to stay awake throughout (I must admit I failed on multiple occasions). But a couple of things stuck out amid the tedium and the almost overwhelming volume of new information.
Shouting “fore” was actively encouraged, the result no doubt of an increasing tendency for leading players to neglect what is perhaps the most important four-letter “F-word” in the game.
“Imagine throwing a ball three-feet in the air then trying to head it,” Paramor said. “It hurts.”
The accidental double-hit – for which there is now no penalty – was illustrated. But so was the illegal and deliberate use of such a “shot” to circumvent an obstruction. “Not worth it,” was Paramor’s warning. “By the time you are done, you will have added four shots to your score.”
“Ah,” said one in the audience. “But who will decide if the double-hit was deliberate or not?”
In the bigger picture, over and over again, it was emphasised how much the new regulations rely on the integrity and honesty of the players. “We must assume the vast majority will live up to that,” Rickman said.
Still, during the question-and-answer session that followed the presentation, a subtext soon became obvious. For many in the audience, too many of the changes placed an over-reliance on the inherent honesty for which professional golf has long been sold to the public. Clearly, years on tour has bred a cynicism and created much doubt in the ability of some players to adhere to any such code of honour.
For example, allowing players to pat down anything and everything between ball and cup on the putting greens was greeted by much murmuring. And the news that said patting can be done with a ball, a foot, a club or a hand provoked what amounted to rebellion. “A cheat’s charter,” whispered my near neighbour, a long-time European Tour caddie.
Then there is the three-minute search limit – down from five – when a ball is lost. “When does the time begin?” asked Torrance. “And what happens when a caddie has walked forward as his man makes his way back to the tee? If the ball finishes in the rough, does the three minutes start when the caddies gets there, or when the player does? In other words, would the caddie be “penalised” for arriving early?
A good question. And something of a grey area. Paramor’s verdict? The application of “common sense” where he would allow a little extra time for the player to join the search.
Over time, as it became more and more obvious that many on the crowd harboured doubts re: the honesty of some nameless players, Paramor offered the only reassurance he could: “You can’t make rules for cheats,” he said. “They are outsiders.”
Inevitably, the subject of putting with the pin in came up. Why this seemingly pointless change has been introduced is clearly a puzzlement to many on the Old World circuit. “Speed of play” was the message from the officials. “Maybe, maybe not,” the verdict from a majority who came up with a variety of descriptions.
Tommy Fleetwood, winner of the past two Abu Dhabi Golf Championships, finds it “a little bit odd”. Tyrrell Hatton calls it “weird”. So does US Open and PGA champion Brooks Koepka. Lee Westwood thinks it all “a bit strange”. Dustin Johnson tried it two weeks ago in Hawaii and “just couldn’t do it”. But, then again, Adam Scott has already promised to try it on the last green at Augusta National, even if he has a five-foot putt to win the Masters for a second time.
“This is a good thing in that it will speed up play for the amateur playing in his monthly medal,” says former US Amateur champion Edoardo Molinari, one of the best putters on the European Tour and elder brother of Open champion Francesco. “There will be no need to attend the flag, no matter how far everyone is from the pin.
“I am not going to change anything. I will putt with the pin out or have it attended as before. I won’t putt with the flagstick in. If the ball arrives going a little too fast – not a lot fast – there is a good chance that it will hit the pin and stay out. It doesn’t take much beyond perfect pace to keep the putt from dropping.”
Add Hatton to the list of those who will not be changing.
“I will not be doing it,” declared the 27-year old Englishman, a member of Europe’s victorious Ryder Cup team last year. “If I’m tapping in from a few inches or putting from 60 feet, I might leave the pin in. But from 10 feet it just wouldn’t look or feel right to me. I’ve seen a few guys doing it already and it just looks weird. But each to their own.”
Whatever, interesting times lie ahead. And at least in the short term it would seem, a distinct possibility of almost weekly rules “incidents”, more and more on-course arguments and, sadly, accusations of “cheating”. You have been warned.