Aerial view of a golf course and a golfer following new USGA rules

How the USGA Rules Changes Affect Amateur Play

by kirkcoburn
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I’m not sure if amateur golf is broken or not. My gut says not really, but the USGA and the R&A (R&A is the international rules body, USGA is the US and Mexico one) are determined to fix a lot of rules for 2023 and going forward. Where it does get complicated in amateur golf is that all levels of golf fall under USGA rules. 

There are your enthusiastic golfers who play the game for the love of it. They may occasionally enter a tournament where they’re basically playing for the fun of it. There are no gazillion-dollar purses at the Goose Poop Invitational.

Then you have the players who do compete regularly, hoping to qualify for regional or national tournaments at the junior or senior level. Finally, there are the almost-pro amateurs—the college or young players who have a definite eye on the prize of a PGA or LPGA card. 

And the same USGA rules apply to all of them, from the Sam Bennetts and Gordon Sargents of the golfing world to the retired guy who gets out there with his buddies on Tuesday mornings. 

What’s Going on With USGA Rules?

So, what do you need to know about these new USGA rules changes? If you’re the Saturday morning warrior who just wants to have a good time and bragging rights, there’s not much that’s different. 

But if you’re a competitive amateur, there are some fairly significant alterations to the game—and more on the horizon for 2024. 

Before I go into the 2023 changes, let’s quickly review the 2022 changes. I would imagine that amateurs across the board welcomed these changes since they make it easier to fund the game and maintain amateur status. 

If you didn’t even notice, you’re probably not at that almost-PGA TOUR level. For instance, amateurs can win up to $1,000 in prize money and may be paid in cash. They can also get paid (or reimbursed, or sponsored, or whatever) for the expenses they incur to participate in a tournament. Finally, and this is the big one, amateurs can participate in the Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) ruling that’s pretty much ruined college sports. The landscape for NIL is a completely different animal for amateur golfers. They are pretty much on their own financially and have to fund the sport themselves. I don’t see Nike offering Austin Greaser a million bucks to stay in Chapel Hill. 

No doubt Lucy Li is thrilled that today’s amateurs aren’t at risk of losing their status if they appear on a product’s social media platform. And I hope Apple has come up with some cash for Li since they almost cost her that status in 2019. 

What’s Up for 2023

The 2023 rules changes are mainly geared towards you and me—the cart crowd who barely deserve “amateur” status. So far in the year, I think they’re good amendments to the game that make it more fun and less of a hassle to play. 

Here Are Some of the Rule Changes

Until now, the rules for players with disabilities were local. Now, they’re part of the official USGA rules, in the book and everything. They are consistent no matter where you’re playing. 

If you’re all into your technology on the course, you’re probably keeping score on an app. I’m going to reserve comment on how idiotic I think it is to be so addicted to your phone. But going forward, you won’t get in trouble if you don’t record your handicap on your actual card with that actual dinky little pencil. 

For those of you who have a Bryson DeChambeau swing speed, you’re allowed to replace a club that can’t handle your uber-strong play—that is, if you damaged the club during play. Smashing the club face against a tree is not inadvertent, and you’re just out of luck the rest of the round. 

It’s rare, but “natural forces”—gravity, mainly—will occasionally move a resting ball. In the past, this was just the breaks. You took stroke and distance relief and your lumps and moved on. Now, you can move the ball back to its original resting spot without a penalty. 

The USGA also moves play along by making rules simpler for a back-on-line drop. Let’s say your ball goes out of bounds, and you drop the ball back in. But there’s no spin, and it rolls away from the intended spot. Instead of dropping until you get the right spot, you can go ahead and play the first drop as long as it’s not more than one club length from your original spot. If it’s closer to the hole? It’s your lucky day. 

Major Changes to Major Tournaments

White golf ball near the hole on a golf course

Okay, that’s enough about casual golfers. 

The USGA has refocused on rules modifications for qualifying for the four major amateur tournaments in the US every year. This is the first time they’ve made any changes since the millennium, so I’d say it’s about time. The fact that the USGA needs to rethink qualifying and exemptions makes me feel better about the future of golf, which has been written off for years as too elitist to survive. 

The USGA is growing. In 2022, there were almost 45,000 total entries into tournament play, 678 qualifying rounds, and 15 championships. The USGA holds qualifying events all over the US at pretty much the same time. So, this seems like a great logistical decision in an environment with a lot of moving parts. Streamlining any process is usually a good idea. 

Going forward, the USGA will exempt the top 100 World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) players, doubling it from 50. In addition, the top 600 in the WAGR are now exempt from local qualifying rounds. 

Changes to the US Amateur

This is the premier amateur tournament, where you can see the next Jacks and Tigers and Scotties on the way up. This tourney had been a 36-hole format. Now it’s held in a two-stage format at 45 sites with an 18-hole qualifier. Winners move on to one of 19 locations and another 18-hole game for final qualifying. 

The USGA has initiated additional qualifying changes:

  • State, AGA, regional, and national amateur champions are exempt based on predetermined criteria and WAGR power rankings.
  • Local winners of USGA championships are also exempt. 

The final field will remain at 312 contestants. But all these exemptions will make the qualifying events a lot more manageable for the staff and volunteers and harder for average joe’s (me). 

Bifurcation Looks Like a Real Thing

It’s been brewing for a while. But the bifurcation thing—separate rules for the pros and top amateurs and the rest of us—is gaining steam. A couple of weeks ago, an “industry source” told the major equipment manufacturers that the changes had reached the proposal stage (as opposed to the “gossip in the bar” stage). 

How can they have two sets of rules? Well, for most humans, this is a total non-starter. The issue at hand is distance. Current rules limit the distance of a shot to 317 yards, give or take a foot or two. 

But what determines distance, besides eating your Wheaties and never skipping arm day? Well, having access to the best custom clubs. And a ball that meets the clubface smack on and true. And a player who can make the magic happen, driving that sucker from the tee to the green on a tricky par-5 hole. 

Why Is This Necessary?

You’ll be happy to know that the distance limits won’t have any impact on that drive you’re never going to make anyway. But some of the gurus of golf—Jack Nicklaus, for one—have pushed for slower and shorter balls for years. Here’s the thing—players are stronger. Technology is better. The combination is driving lower and lower scores as tee shots are going unbelievable distances. Nobody wants to recalibrate par and whatnot on championship-level courses (which moonlight as private clubs and public facilities when a tournament isn’t in town). The same reasoning goes for why lengthening individual holes is not a great idea, either. But, is it just the equipment? I don’t think so. Kids today are being taught to hit the ball as hard as they can and figure out how to hit is straight later. Many of us were taught the opposite and will never have the strength nor the capability to reach astronomic swing speeds. So, maybe this is more about limiting the new super humans. R

When I’m buying golf balls and doing the cost-benefit analysis of a box of Titleist ProV1s or a Wilson Staff, I’m not really thinking about the technology or whether there are 368 or 346 dimples on the ball. I’m thinking about which ball will help me get the ball in the hole in the last amount of strokes. Turns out, technology matters and this is going to create a huge rift in the game. 

Another change that the USGA is proposing is maximum clubhead speed. You’ll be happy to know that it’s goosed up to 127 mph, 12.1 mph faster than the current USGA rules. Considering that the fastest hitter on the PGA Tour, Brandon Hagy, hits about 126, this won’t really affect us mere mortals on the back nine. 

The clubhead speed, as I may have mentioned earlier, determines ball distance. Pros estimate these USGA rule changes (if they’re implemented) will shorten a drive from about 300 to 285 yards. 

I think it’s kind of important to recognize that bifurcation will have minimal on-the-ground impact on the game. But I also think that, for the good of the game, putting the brakes on technology via distance rule changes at the elite levels is ridiculous and will hurt the professional game. Viewers want heroes. While other sports are trying to progress the game forward, this move will not only make it less interesting for you and me, it will also complicate the number of sku’s the equipment manufacturers needs to keep on the shelf. Lower profitability will only hurt all of us. 

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