Who Makes the Rules?
The R rules were first published in 1842 when the R was stilled called the Society of St. Andrews Golfers. At the time, rules were local to individual clubs.
As the nineteenth century wore on, most clubs settled on following the rules of R or the rules of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (HCEG). Finally, in 1883, the HCEG gave in and adopted the R rules. By the time the R rules of 1891 were issued, they were widely accepted, though not yet universal.
When the USGA was formed in 1894, the organization needed rules as it began running the US Open tournament, and decided to form its own. The initial rules were quite similar to the R rules, but not identical, and disagreements arose, so that by the 1940s, these two sets of influential rules were rather far apart.
It was at this time that the USGA and the R decided to jointly create a universal set of rules, and the first edition of the Rules of Golf was published in 1952.
An Example of Changing Rules
Let's take rules about golf clubs. In the beginning, there weren't any. Until 1908, rules referred to a "club's length" and playing a ball with "any club," for example, but did not include any further details about requirements for those clubs. The 1908 rules introduced a restriction on having any mechanical "contrivance" on the club head.
In 1910, a notable split came between the USGA and the R on the topic of center-shafted putters. The USGA accepted them, whereas the R declared them to be illegal. This difference lasted until the joint rules were published in 1952, when it was declared that the shaft of the putter could be attached to the head at any point.
The latest change in the rules concerning golf club conformity is to the groove rules that took effect on January 1, 2010. A memorandum in February 2011 to those entering the US Open, US Women's Open, and US Senior Open informed them that some uncertainty about conformance had arisen in some cases, and that the USGA planned to provide a testing service without charge, if needed.
How much influence do the rules of golf have? Some golfers don't care about the rules, and just want to have a good time. They'll use non-conforming golf balls, take mulligans, and shift their golf ball around if they don't like the location. Others take the rules much more seriously. And professional golfer John Daly says, "The only rules I follow are the rules of golf."
Historical Rules of Golf Pages. (n.d.). Articles laws in playing at golf: 1744. Retrieved from http://www.ruleshistory.com/rules1744.html Historical Rules of Golf Pages. (n.d.). Clubs and balls. Retrieved from http://www.ruleshistory.com/clubs.html Historical Rules of Golf Pages. (n.d.). The background story: Part I. Retrieved from http://www.ruleshistory.com/pre-1899.html USGA. (2011, February 14). Memorandum. Retrieved from http://www.usga.org/equipment/testing/submission_process/Checking-Clubs-for-Conformance-to-the-New-Groove-Rules%282%29/ Verdi, B. (2005, August). Daly uncensored. Golf Digest. Retrieved from http://www.golfdigest.com/magazine/2007-06/verdi_daly0508