Rules School: The Evolution Of The Rules Of Golf

Oct 14, 2011

By Dr. Lew Blakey

This article is the second in a six-part series exploring the history of The Rules of Golf. The objective of this series is to give the reader greater clarity on why Rules changes occur and what factors are considered when making, or not making, a Rules change. In conjunction with The R&A, the USGA writes, interprets and maintains The Rules of Golf to uphold the tradition and integrity of the game. The two organizations are joint authors and owners of The Rules of Golf and Decisions on the Rules of Golf. The Rules are revised on a quadrennial basis, with the next revision scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2012.

When the United States Golf Association was founded in December 1894, it was for the “purposes of promoting the interests of the game of golf, to promulgate a code of rules for the game, and to hold annual meetings at which competitions shall be conducted for the amateur and open championships in the United States.”

This article will focus on the second purpose, to promulgate a code of rules for the game, noting that, for its initial championships in 1895, the USGA adopted The Rules of Golf written by The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The story continues through many twists and turns, nearly ending with a code authored solely by the USGA in 1947 before a joint code was fashioned by the USGA and The R&A acting in close concert in 1952.

The oldest surviving written Rules of Golf are those of the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which were set to paper for an annual challenge for the Edinburgh silver club in 1744. The next oldest code is that of The R&A, written in 1754 for its silver club competition. It is nearly a word-for-word version of the earlier Edinburgh code. For many years, the 1744 code was somehow lost and it was commonly thought that The R&A code of 1754 was the oldest known code. In fact, all the golf historians around the time of the founding of the USGA made reference to The R&A code of 1754 as the earliest known Rules of Golf. It was not until 1937 that a retired English civil servant, C.B. Clapcott, discovered the 1744 code in the last two pages of the first minute book of the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, then known as the Gentlemen Golfers.

During the early 1800s, other clubs were formed and each developed its own rules. Over time, these codes came to vary widely, and it was only much later, in 1897, that the clubs hosting the British Amateur Championship asked The R&A to form a Rules of Golf Committee to assume the role of periodically revising and writing The Rules of Golf for the entire golfing world. The first code written by this committee was in 1897, but the latest R&A revision available to the USGA for its championships in 1895 was The R&A code approved in September 1891. Inasmuch as Charles Blair Macdonald of Chicago Golf Club was one of the founders of the USGA and an Association vice president, there was no question that the first competitions conducted by the USGA would be according to The Rules of Golf as approved by The R&A. Macdonald, who claimed the first U.S. Amateur trophy in 1895, had been schooled at St. Andrews University some 20 years earlier and had played with the likes of Old Tom Morris, developing a great respect for the traditions of the game, including its Rules.

Almost immediately after the competitions of 1895, the USGA realized the need for some clarification of the meaning of terms in the Rules and on July 18, 1896, the executive committee of the USGA appointed a special committee consisting of Macdonald and Laurence Curtis of The Country Club of Brookline, Mass., to prepare a report interpreting The Rules of Golf. Their work, which was undertaken through consultation with The R&A, resulted in the first printed Rules of Golf issued by the USGA on June 10, 1897. The preface to this document states, “The special committee have made no change in the code of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, revised in 1891; but they have appended to said rules the rulings of the United States Golf Association, based upon the results of many decisions of committees or experts, or upon customs which have obtained in the best clubs in Scotland and England.” The added interpretations were not of great significance, so one could conclude that the first USGA Rules of Golf was essentially that of The R&A as of 1891.

Over the next 50 years, this process of The R&A issuing infrequent revisions to the Rules and the USGA adding interpretations generally without substantive changes continued until 1947, when the USGA published an entirely revised code independent of The R&A. From the time of the last major revision of the rules by The R&A in 1934, pressure had been building for major changes to the Rules. Serious discussions had been taking place between the USGA and The R&A but were interrupted by World War II.

The 1947 USGA code combined the Rules for match play and stroke play much as in today’s format, in contrast to that for prior years of dealing only with match play in the main part of the book with added stroke-play Rules in a separate section at the end. The R&A responded in 1950 with what was characterized by some as an experimental code with greatly reduced penalties in all sections stemming from reducing the penalty for a ball lost, out of bounds or unplayable to distance only. Finally, in 1952, the USGA and The R&A jointly conceived and issued a revised Rules of Golf, ending the practice of the USGA simply adopting The R&A Rules with some interpretations.

Since the time of the jointly issued Rules of Golf in 1952, uniformity has been the guiding principle for cooperation between the USGA and The R&A, which today has resulted in a Rules umbrella of some 34 rules and 1,300 decisions that are identical in both the USGA and R&A editions of the Rules documents. This has been assured by a process starting with each side having a Rules of Golf Committee, where issues are discussed and a Joint Rules of Golf Committee where these issues are jointly decided. For the USGA, this is the culmination of what had its beginnings in that report by Macdonald and Curtis in 1897.

Dr. Lew Blakey serves on the Amateur Public Links Championship Committee of the USGA and has worked as a Rules official at all four professional major championships – including 14 U.S. Opens. Email questions or comments to clairelu@comcast.net.

Charles Blair Macdonald, who claimed the first U.S. Amateur trophy in 1895, had been schooled at St. Andrews University some 20 years earlier and had played with the likes of Old Tom Morris, developing a great respect for the traditions of the game, including its Rules.


Almost immediately after the competitions of 1895, the USGA realized the need for some clarification of the meaning of terms in the Rules and on July 18, 1896, the executive committee of the USGA appointed a special committee consisting of Charles Blair Macdonald and Laurence Curtis (above) of The Country Club of Brookline, Mass., to prepare a report interpreting The Rules of Golf.


Since the time of the jointly issued Rules of Golf in 1952, uniformity has been the guiding principle for cooperation between the USGA and The R&A, which today has resulted in a Rules umbrella of some 34 rules and 1,300 decisions that are identical in both the USGA and R&A editions of the Rules documents.