Since December 22, 1894, when the United States Golf Association first ran up its flag to warn off foreign dandruff, the game has evolved with a deliberateness bordering on timidity. Every decade or so the rules are tweaked to eliminate some anachronism (such as the stymie) or an undignified practice ( Sam Snead putting croquet style). But the game essentially conforms to the 13 rules set down by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1744, which, in turn, were based on 400 years or so of Scottish practice. A century, if you think about it, is barely long enough to get turfgrass going.
In its next 100 years the USGA would be wise to continue its incremental approach. The year 2000, for instance, would be the perfect time to repeal the stroke-and-distance rule. This penalty, which is both an anachronism and an indignity, effectively charges two strokes for a 300-yard drive that strays an inch out-of-bounds, while the 100-yard worm-burner into a lateral water hazard gets off with one. If the Edinburgh golfers had made such a rule, they would not be remembered as an Honourable Company.
In 2010 the USGA might consider a ban on the practice of marking yardages on sprinkler heads. Only a purist objects to 150-yard posts or bushes—or laser guns and satellites, for that matter—but it slows play to search for sprinkler heads, and conversation suffers when you're counting steps backward from 200.
Ten years on, when Tiger Woods is 44, the USGA should finally permit the repairing of spike marks on greens—preferably with a 100-pound roller. And certainly, before mid-century, the men and women in blue blazers should promulgate a set of rules for long-driving contests and closest-to-the-hole charity competitions.
Some will object that these small changes will not sustain golf through the 21st century, that the game faces challenges unrelated to the rule book. The USGA, to its credit, recognizes this. Its leaders concede that golf in the next millennium may be less green (due to water limits and restrictions on turfgrass chemicals), less white (due to increased interest among minorities and lower tolerance for exclusive clubs), less male (due to legal challenges and changing recreation patterns) and yet somehow more expensive. This last trend, spurred by the irreversible yoking of the game to the motorized golf cart, could even choke off growth. "Virtual golf" might challenge the outdoor variety and lead to an Honourable Company of Edinburgh Cyberpunks. The Chip, so to speak, could replace the chip.
More likely, the game will flourish and wither by turns, as it has these last 100 years. Golf courses by Donald Ross and A.W. Tillinghast, one hates to remember, died of neglect during the Great Depression. Today's resort courses, with their jade fairways and sparkling waterfalls, could wind up weedy and enclosed in barbed wire, like yesterday's amusement parks. What are now urban slums, on the other hand, might turn into family golf centers.
Will Shinnecock Hills survive? Probably. Only the grimmest doomsdayer predicts a year 2095 with no U.S. Open. The game, when the USGA's bicentennial is celebrated, will probably be little changed from our quaint era of balata balls and titanium shafts. Corey Pavin will seem to rub historical shoulders with Old Tom Morris, and "You da man" will be as indecipherable as the scratch marks on ancient scrolls. But a club length's relief will still be provided when dropping from ground marked under repair.
Incrementalism has its critics; so does the USGA, which has been conservative and hidebound for most of its existence. But games, to retain their charm, must evolve at a pace slower than the societies they serve. My advice to the USGA embarking on its second 100 years is simple: Stay the course.