One of the most welcome amendments to the Rules of Golf, effective 1st January 2012, is the new definition of addressing the ball. It might help to look first at both the old and the new definitions;
Previous Definition of Addressing the Ball;
A player has “addressed the ball” when he has taken his stance and has also grounded his club, except that in a hazard a player has addressed the ball when he has taken his stance. Current Definition of Addressing the Ball; A player has “addressed the ball” when he has grounded his club immediately in front of or immediately behind the ball, whether or not he has taken his stance. You will see that there are two main differences; the removal of stance as a requirement and the introduction of the word “immediately”.
With the benefit of hindsight, the removal of the stance prerequisite now seems an obvious simplification to the Rules in that most players do not ground their club for a stroke until they have completed their stance. Note that when a player’s ball lies in a hazard they are now not going to address their ball at all (in the vast majority of cases) as stance is no longer a requirement and you may not ground your club in a hazard (bunker or water hazard). I say the vast majority of cases because you are permitted to ground your club on an immovable obstruction situated in a hazard (e.g. a bridge in a water hazard, Decision 13-4/30), and you are permitted to ground your club outside of a hazard if your ball lies just inside the margin of the hazard.
It is less obvious why the second change to the definition has been introduced and it has already created much discussion and disagreement between Rules experts. How far is “immediately” in the phrase “has grounded his club immediately in front of or immediately behind the ball”? Does two inches (5 centimeters) qualify, or does it mean “any closer and it would be touching the ball”, as has been suggested by authoritative sources connected with the USGA? In their opinion, the player in the photo above has not grounded their club “immediately” behind their ball and so they have not addressed their ball. This is bound to cause a lot of arguments and it is very surprising that the Ruling Bodies did not clarify the introduction of the word “immediately” with a relevant Decision.
A related change to the new Definition of Address is the revised Rule 18-2b, Ball Moving after Address;
If a player’s ball in play moves after he has addressed it (other than as a result of a stroke), the player is deemed to have moved the ball and incurs a penalty of one stroke.
The ball must be replaced, unless the movement of the ball occurs after the player has begun the stroke or the backward movement of the club for the stroke and the stroke is made.
Exception: If it is known or virtually certain that the player did not cause his ball to move, Rule 18-2b does not apply. A principle behind this Rule was that it was more than coincidence if a ball moved after the player had taken the action of addressing it. They were penalised on the assumption that either the placing of their feet or the grounding of their club was the cause of the ball moving, without any external factors being taken into account. There have been several high-profile incidents over the past four years where it was blatantly obvious that it was wind that caused a ball to move and not the player. This inequity has now been resolved. However, note that the amendment to the Rule is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card; it must be known or virtually certain that the player did not cause their ball to move.