Published: Oct 24, 2011 1:33 PM EDT
Updated: Oct 25, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) - Golfers will no longer be penalized if their ball moves after it has been addressed in one of a number of rule changes announced by the sport's governing body on Monday.

Rory McIlroy and Webb Simpson are high-profile players to have been hit with one-shot penalties this year for what is widely regarded as one of the harshest rules in golf.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which is responsible for administering the Rules of Golf, says that from Jan. 1 next year, players will be exonerated if the ball moves after the address "when it is known or virtually certain that he did not cause the ball to move."

"Every time the wind blows, I am worried that my ball is going to move and I am worried about grounding my putter, distracting me from trying to hole my putt," said three-time major winner Padraig Harrington, who is an R&A ambassador.

The third-ranked McIlroy was hit with the punishment in his final round at the British Open at Royal St. George's.

The consequences weren't disastrous for McIlroy - he had little chance of winning the tournament and ended up finishing 25th - but the same cannot be said of Simpson's misfortune in the final round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in May.

The American player was leading by a shot and closing in on what would have been his first title when his ball moved on the 15th green. After being given a one-stroke penalty, he eventually lost in a playoff to compatriot Bubba Watson.

Simpson lost the PGA Tour money title to Luke Donald on Sunday by a margin of $335,861 - the difference between first and second place at the Zurich Classic was $460,800.

Simpson at the time labeled the sanction "such a bad rule."

Other changes announced by the R&A, which issues the sport's rules in conjunction with the USGA - the governing body for the United States and Mexico - include allowing players to smooth sand or soil before playing from a hazard "provided it is for the sole purpose of caring for the course and Rule 13-2 (improving lie, area of intended stance or swing or line of play) is not breached."

Golfers will also no longer be automatically disqualified from a tournament if they start late, but within five minutes of the correct tee time. Instead, they will lose the first hole in match play or two shots at the first hole in stroke play.

"I am delighted with the changes, in particular the ball moving after address," Harrington said. "It is definitely giving us players a little bit of a break."

In addition, the R&A has amended the definition of addressing the ball to mean "simply ... grounding his club immediately in front of or behind the ball, regardless of whether or not he has taken his stance."

Before, the address position required a player to be stood over the ball with the club grounded.

The new rules will be effective until 2015, the R&A said.