Golf breaks from the past, embraces progress

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The most important news in golf this week wasn’t the joint USGA/R&A announcement of a proposal to modernize many of the game’s stodgy rules. Or the PGA of America’s decision to allow competitors to wear shorts during practice rounds for championship events. Or the PGA Tour and its fellow international circuits jumping into uncharted waters by holding a WGC event in Mexico for the first time.

No, the most important news wasn’t any of this individually. It was all of this. It was the prevailing theme of progression in an industry that too often remains stuck in the past.

Examine any report on the state of the game and you’ll find what sounds suspiciously like some doomsday scenario. Recreational rounds are decreasing annually, more courses are continuing to close, and Tiger Woods — the player who single-handedly ushered golf from niche to mainstream over the past two decades — is still dealing with injuries which have left his future in doubt.

Of course, the situation isn’t that dire. Recreational golfers will still play, the large majority of courses will remain open and young, talented superstars will take Woods’ place on that hierarchy. But if the caretakers of the game want it to flourish instead of simply endure, there needed to be change.

That’s the biggest takeaway from all of these recent developments. Those charged with how the game functions and operates have finally started to embrace this concept.

None other than Gary Player tweeted his approval of the latest rules proposals by quoting Winston Churchill: “Change is the price of survival.”

Many of the proposed changes have a common goal. Eliminate gray areas and allow common sense to prevail. That might sound like a no-brainer, but in a game often too steeped in tradition to move ahead, this should serve as a giant leap forward.

It’s not just the proposed rulings, either, which in many cases will eliminate frivolous penalties for unintended violations. There will also be a new, shorter, more user-friendly handbook to guide players through these rules, one which will casually refer to them in the second person.

“Our two organizations came together with an objective to make the rules easier to understand and easier to apply for all golfers throughout the world,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status. “That’s very important as part of this initiative, and as we looked at that, we didn’t just look at the outcomes. We’ve also addressed the delivery of the rules and how the rules are written, presenting them now in a more modern form, using plain language and language that can be easily translated and understood.”

If the actions of the USGA and R&A to guide the game into its next iteration aren’t enough to inspire universal optimism about the future, then parallel maneuvers from other organizations should serve to help that idea.

The powers that be at golf’s highest professional levels not only continue to spread the game internationally — of the year’s first three WGC tournaments, this week’s event will be the first played outside the United States in more than a decade — they also continue to produce creative ways to break away from the status quo.

One example is the upcoming Zurich Classic, an official event which will feature two-man teams. Meanwhile, the European Tour already has experimented with a unique match play-style shootout and has looked into the possibility of hosting a night tournament under lights.

By comparison, the PGA of America’s decision to let players show a little leg during their summertime championships isn’t exactly earth-shattering news, but it all plays into the same endgame: Remove some of the stodginess from the game and try to appeal more to the masses.

That’s an important initiative, one which could help the game bridge the gap from simply enduring to flourishing. It’s also the most important news of the past week. In a game that’s been too resistant to change for too many years, progress is finally being made.

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