By Andrew Both
(Reuters) – The U.S. Golf Association (USGA) wants professionals to feel comfortable questioning the rules, but the organisation’s mission does not include engaging in a popularity contest, says senior director of governance Thomas Pagel.
A raft of new rules were introduced for 2019 and there has been vocal dissent from certain players, including American Justin Thomas.
The world number five’s latest outburst came three weeks ago at the Honda Classic, where he was unable to replace a nine-iron he had bent striking a tree on his follow-through.
Under the old rule, had an official deemed the club unfit for play Thomas could have replaced the club, assuming there was a replacement handy.
The new rule allows players to continue using a damaged club, even bending it back into shape if possible, but not to replace it during a round.
“You can just add that one to the list of rules that don’t make any sense,” Thomas told reporters.
“If you break or bend the club in play, I don’t see where the harm is in replacing it.”
Pagel disputes the new rule does not make sense.
“That rule used to be so complicated (determining) when a club was damaged, unfit,” Pagel told Reuters in an interview.
“We said let’s simplify it. You can start with up to 14 (clubs) and if one becomes damaged you’re not able to replace it.
“Justin and I have connected. I thought it was very positive conversation. I want to keep the nature of it private.”
The Thomas criticism followed what at times was a rocky rollout of the new rules in January, though Pagel says he expected growing pains after such a significant overhaul.
The first major controversy involved a rule banning caddies from standing behind players and lining them up towards a target.
An incident at the Phoenix Open where Denny McCarthy had a two-stroke penalty rescinded prompted the USGA and its joint ruling body the R&A to rewrite the rule in a matter of days.
Pagel said the rule as it was originally written was too unforgiving.
“That’s one of the things we learnt and went in and quickly changed,” he said.
Another change required players taking a drop to do so from knee height, rather than shoulder height.
This also was put under the microscope when Rickie Fowler at the WGC-Mexico Championship became the first player penalised.
Fowler was well aware of the rule change, but simply forget in the heat of the moment and took a drop from shoulder height so quickly that his caddie, who was zipping up a pocket in the golf bag, did not even see it.
The drop rule was introduced so the ball will not roll as far when it hits the ground.
Pagel said the USGA had expected “growing pains” given the scope of the changes.
“The first six weeks we had a member on site at every PGA Tour event,” he said.
“We’ve kept an open mind all along. Going back to last year, we acknowledged this is a lot of change.
“We want to have conversations with players and understand their perspectives.”
But that does not mean the players will always get their way.
“Governance is not easy but it’s a role we take (seriously),” Pagel said. “It’s not about a popularity contest.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Ed Osmond)