Hawk’s Eye: Here’s how rules changes coming in 2019 will impact caddies

With rule changes coming in 2019, caddies — and players — will need to brush up on what they can and cannot do. Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Summer’s almost over and a majority of the year’s biggest tournaments are behind us, but if you’re a serious golfer or a caddie, Aug. 31 also marks the final day you can have your say with the USGA in regard to proposed rule changes scheduled to go into effect in 2019.

A lot of the new stuff really isn’t worth generating an opinion about. For instance, the USGA has decided it’s OK to listen to music or watch something (presumably on a streaming device) while you play, as long as it doesn’t give you a competitive advantage. This should do great things for the game’s pace-of-play quandary, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s fairly innocuous. Taking a drop from somewhere other than shoulder length — I’m guessing very few people will have a problem with that.

Several of the new rules, however, are a big deal, which makes this group of proposed changes by far the most impactful that I can recall. Allowing a player to ground the club inside a hazard? That’s crazier than hiring the Sex Pistols to play your grandson’s bar mitzvah. No penalty if you move your ball by accident? Nah, that won’t lead to any heated arguments.

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I find it amusing that in its detailed description of the changes, GolfDigest.com chose to run a photo of Phil Mickelson with the “Ball in Motion” proposal. The USGA is finally willing to allow yardage-measuring devices and let golfers continue to use clubs damaged during a round, provided you didn’t slam it against a pole at the halfway house after missing a three-footer on the ninth green.

Although none of these amendments are “official” quite yet, it’s hard to imagine the hacksaws in Far Hills shredding their list because a couple of club pros in Arkansas beg to differ. Personally, I don’t have a problem with any of it, not when it appears the USGA old-schoolers finally did away with their dunce caps, but then, I’m still trying to get over that penalty they slapped on the kid at the U.S. Amateur.

Two of the rule changes specifically involve caddies. The first, and less significant, is that the man on the bag can now mark his player’s ball without “specific authorization,” although the descriptions I read made no mention as to whether the caddie has to return the ball to its place when his guy is ready to play. It is very likely he would, since any fellow competitor who marks another player’s ball is required to do so, which only shows how dumb the old rule was.

If Jerry can drop a coin behind Dick’s ball, why couldn’t Dick’s caddie do the same? Because the USGA said so, that’s why.

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Anyway, the second change prohibits a caddie from helping his player line up a putt — a practice that has become annoyingly common on the LPGA over the years. Once the golfer addresses the ball, her caddie can no longer serve as a human compass by kneeling behind the boss and informing her she’s in perfect alignment with the right edge.

It’s kind of weird how you see the women do it all the time, yet you never see it on the PGA Tour. I suppose it does occur with the men, and it certainly isn’t rare to see a caddie kneeling behind his guy on the practice green, but in all my years of covering the big boys, I don’t recall witnessing it in a tournament.

If it worked, a lot of the guys would do it. I can guarantee you that.

Not that the pro caddie’s duties change only on the basis of those two proposals. Rule changes of this magnitude make his job even more important. Reminding his player that he can ground the club in hazards, which will be renamed “penalty areas,” and remove loose impediments (which is also the case in a bunker), could prove vital when in contention on a Sunday afternoon, or simply when trying to make a cut.

One thing that has blown my mind over the years is that a fair number of players, and we’re talking tour pros, don’t have a firm grasp of the rules. Many do, perhaps understanding that knowledge is power, or that it’s part of the job description, and though a lot of golf’s laws are stupid, outdated or difficult to interpret, ignorance is no excuse.

A man on the bag who knows legal from illegal can be invaluable, especially to some of the younger players. The best caddies in the business will enter next year having brushed up on all the new legislation. Those who don’t? Good luck.

All views expressed in this column are those of John Hawkins and do not necessarily reflect those of the Caddie Network.

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