The 2019 Rules of Golf contain the most far-reaching set of changes since 1984. To make sure we get the most out of our abbreviated Midwest golf season, let’s make the effort to learn the new Rules.
Along with the new provision to putt with an unattended flagstick in the hole, the most visible change among the 2019 Rules is the new method for dropping a ball. This procedure has seen several changes over the years – from dropping over the shoulder to dropping at shoulder height and now to dropping at knee height. In each case, there have been reasons for the change. The pre-1984 method of dropping over the shoulder emphasized the element of luck, but it had the shortcoming of making it difficult for a player to know whether the dropped ball struck his foot (in which case he was required to re-drop under the old Rules) as well as where the dropped ball landed (an important point in situations where a player was required to place the ball where it landed on the second drop).
The drop from shoulder height (valid from 1984 through 2018) solved both issues, but the fact remained that a ball dropped from such a height could roll a considerable distance, resulting in many situations where a player would need to drop a ball twice and occasionally to place the ball after two drops, all of which added time to the round. There was also the philosophical concern that in some cases a player could play a dropped ball from what seemed like an inappropriate distance from the reference point (e.g., a player taking relief from a lateral water hazard drops the ball at the edge of the two club-lengths relief area and the ball then rolls two club-lengths away from the hazard; allowing the player to play the ball almost four club-lengths to the side of where his ball last entered the hazard seemed excessive to many).
The new requirement to drop a ball from knee height successfully addresses the above issues while saving time, simplifying the relief process and having the player play the ball from closer to the reference point in question (so there are both practical and philosophical benefits from this change). How does the new Rule accomplish all of this?
First, to make sure that luck (good and bad) remains a part of the dropping process, the player will still drop the ball in many relief situations.
Second, a ball dropped from a significantly lower height than the previous shoulder height will, in many cases, not roll as far after striking the ground. This important point results in fewer instances when a player is required to re-drop a ball, saving both time and confusion.
Third, the fact that a ball dropped from knee height will usually not roll a significant distance, coupled with the new requirement to drop in a “relief area,” makes it much easier to determine when a re-drop is required. Under the old Rules, there were nine situations when a dropped ball was required to be re-dropped (e.g., if it rolled into a hazard or more than two club-lengths). Under the new Rules, there is only one: when it rolls outside the relief area.
The relief area for dropping a ball consists of a reference point (e.g., the nearest point of complete relief from an immovable obstruction or the point where the ball last crossed the edge of a penalty area) plus a certain distance (one or two club-lengths, depending on the Rule being used). Again depending on the specific Rule being used, there will be some limitations on the locations of the relief area (e.g., whether it may be in any area of the course or it must be in a particular area of the course; that it is not nearer the hole than the reference point).
Some players have complained that dropping a ball from knee height is physically awkward. Some have found that they just need to experiment with a few different methods of dropping a ball before settling on one. Two common practices are to drop from the side, by simply lowering the arm to knee height, and by bending from the waist and dropping in front, thereby allowing a nice view of the relief area.
One player went so far as to measure how high off the ground his knee cap is (20 to 24 inches, as he learned). This knowledge helps him focus on the height from which the ball must be dropped rather than on the method. The bottom line: Find out what works for you; this is one part of golf that can be practiced before the course even opens!