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Dowling already making her mark


Rory McIlroy takes a drop from knee-height at Kapalua Golf Club on Friday. Photo: Getty

Rory McIlroy takes a drop from knee-height at Kapalua Golf Club on Friday. Photo: Getty

Getty Images

Rory McIlroy takes a drop from knee-height at Kapalua Golf Club on Friday. Photo: Getty

A marked softening in the traditionally unbending image of the Royal and Ancient is evident in the far-reaching rules revision which came into effect last Tuesday, January 1. Interestingly, the process has coincided with the acceptance of women members into the long-time men-only establishment.

It is arguably the most thorough rules revision since agreement was reached between the R and A and their brethren in the US Golf Association in 1952 to bring a uniform code into use worldwide. Since then, both bodies seemed to gain media attention largely for the wrong reasons, involving incidents of crushing disappointment for players disqualified for rules infractions in Major championships.

Mind you, there has also been the odd diversion into humour through the years, like the reaction to astronaut Alan Shepard's historic six-iron golf shots on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission in February 1971. Executed one-handed, the first was shanked into a crater about 40 yards away, but flush contact with a well-hit second sent the ball at least 200 yards on a trajectory he could follow, down-sun and against a black sky.

Shortly afterwards, a telegram was despatched from the R and A at St Andrews, with the message: "Warmest congratulations to all of you on your great achievement and safe return. Please refer to Rules of Golf section on etiquette, paragraph 6, quote - before leaving a bunker a player should carefully fill up all holes made by him therein - unquote."

Ireland made a significant contribution to this key aspect of the game through Ulsterman John Glover, a former international who produced a most illuminating film during his term as R and A rules secretary. Now, Irish golf has another representative at the nerve-centre of rules administration.

In February 2015, hardly a day after she had been accepted as a member of the R and A, Claire Dowling received a phone call from Chris Hilton, the current captain at St Andrews. "He invited me on to the Rules Committee, which must be one of the shortest apprenticeships of its kind in the history of club golf," she said with much amusement.

Given they were midway through a season at the time, it didn't actually happen until the following September. In her current role as deputy chairman of the Rules Committee, however, she has been doing quite a deal of travelling on the R and A's behalf. "Though I once chaired part of a meeting, it doesn't necessarily mean that I will one day be chairman: that's not how the system works," she said. "But I'm enjoying it enormously."

She went on: "When framing rules, there are often situations in golf where there's no black or white solution to a problem. And one really unfair incident during the 1990 Irish Ladies Close at The Island has stayed with me. As a player walked in to play her ball from a water hazard that happened to be dry, she picked up a stone in the spikes of her shoe.

"Realising what she'd done, she proceeded to remove the stone and threw it away. She then played the shot, carried on and signed for the score. When asked afterwards if she had removed a stone from a hazard, she explained what had happened only to be informed that she was disqualified for signing for a score that should have included a penalty.

"She was absolutely devastated. She had fallen victim to something that was hugely unfair. Though she gained absolutely no advantage from it, she had still broken a rule. So, that's a very good change - allowing a player to remove a loose impediment in a hazard.

"Eliminating the penalty for a double-hit generated an enormous amount of discussion. Could a player do it deliberately? Another contentious issue was putting the ball back into play. Should it simply be placed? A lot of traditionalists like myself believe that there's a random nature to the game of golf and that a dropped ball better reflects that element of randomness. From knee height, there's still no guarantee as to where it will come to rest."

When she was winning five Irish Close titles, along with the British Women's Stroke Play crown, Ms Dowling could have been described as a tidy player, which clearly fits her current image. She exudes a sense of order; quietly precise.

"If you look at the composition and traditions of the respective bodies, you could have imagined the main thrust for simplification coming from the USGA," she continued. "In fact the opposite was the case. The R and A were the ones pushing harder, yet the process was essentially one of compromise, every step of the way."

Spanning almost six years, much of the drafting was done by Mark Newell of the USGA, who served as editor and treasurer of the Harvard Law Review and went on to serve as a law clerk to the US Supreme Court. An over-riding consideration focused on getting the outcomes to be more fair, while eliminating silly, procedural traps.

When the work was done, getting the message across became equally time-consuming. "I went to St Andrews last February for a seminar titled 'Teach the teachers'," said the Dubliner, who lives with her husband, Peter, in Devon. "That was aimed at Europe, including GB&I, with a view to passing on the information in our own countries, and was conducted by the R and A staff headed by David Bonsall, chairman of the Rules of Golf Committee.

"Other, similar seminars were held around the world. I went to one in Bangkok and another in Australia. There were four of us, David [Bonsall], myself, Shona McRae [assistant rules director of the R and A] and Jin Woo Kim, an R and A staff member based in Singapore. That was last April and May.

"I wasn't involved in the one in Argentina, but I was in Tullamore in December. Between seminars and meetings, I must have been close on 30 days away. Peter came with me to Bangkok and Australia."

Her next arraignment is in Japan in April, officiating at the Women's Asia-Pacific Championship. Meanwhile, there have been refereeing duties at four Open Championships and her fifth one promises to be something special, at Royal Portrush next July.

Before we parted, she recalled how miffed she had been when, on the occasion of our first meeting at Hermitage in 1979, I had playfully suggested that successful women golfers were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Recent happenings might prompt the thought that for her, good fortune has endured.

Rule changes

  • Dropping procedure: When taking relief (from an abnormal course condition or penalty area, for example) golfers will now drop from knee height.
  • The golfer's relief area will be measured by using the longest club in his/her bag (other than a putter) to measure one club length or two club lengths, depending on the situation, providing a consistent process for golfers to establish relief area. 
  • No penalty for a double hit. Golfers will simply count the one stroke they made to strike the ball.
  • As an alternative to stroke-and-distance for balls lost or out of bounds, a new Local Rule will now be available permitting committees to allow golfers the option to drop the ball in the vicinity of where the ball is lost or out of bounds (including the nearest fairway area), under a two-stroke penalty.
  • No penalty for accidentally moving a ball on the putting green or in searching for a ball; and a player is not responsible for causing a ball to move unless it is "virtually certain" that he or she did so.
  • No penalty if a ball played from the putting green hits an unattended flagstick in the hole; players may putt without having the flagstick attended or removed.
  • Players may repair spike marks and other damage including that made by shoes and animals on the putting green. There is no penalty for merely touching the line of putt.
  • No penalty for moving loose impediments or touching the ground or water in a penalty area (previously water hazard).
  • No penalty for moving loose impediments in a bunker or for generally touching the sand with a hand or club. A limited set of restrictions (such as not grounding the club right next to the ball) is kept to preserve the challenge of playing from the sand; however, an extra relief option is added for an unplayable ball in a bunker, allowing the ball to be played from outside the bunker with a two-stroke penalty.
  • Reduced time for searching for a lost ball from five minutes to three. Encouragement of 'ready golf' in stroke play.

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