Much was made in 2019 by the USGA and R&A, which introduced a “modernized” version of the rules of golf. It was a recognition from the governing bodies of the Gulf that earlier versions of the rules often required more than just common sense for those who aspired to be faithful followers. Try a higher education university degree in linguistics. Fortunately, the new version tried to make the rules clearer and more understandable as well as fairer and more consistent for golfers who are often confused when they encounter seemingly straightforward rule situations during a round.
That said, the current rules of golf can still make you scratch your head. When you try to legislate about a game being played over large spaces that incorporates a variety of circumstances, there will obviously be confusion and questions.
To help golfers who may be only loosely acquainted with the rules – or avid players trying to become more than casual acquaintances with them – we spoke with Kendall Dunovant, an assistant manager on the rules team at the USGA, to help identify some rule scenarios, which still require a bit of nuance to understand.
Below are 10 common circumstances golfers are likely to run into at some point on the course and what they should know to quickly – and correctly – keep their round moving.
Where and how to take proper relief anywhere on the pitch can be confusing, but especially one area that erupts causal players are immobile obstacles. We are talking about sprinkler heads, drains, carriageways or any other man-made object that cannot be moved without “unreasonable effort” or causing damage to the track.
Part of the reason for this, according to Dunovant, is that golfers have a misconception that a ball must touch the obstacle to receive relief. In fact, you can take relief if the obstruction simply disturbs the area of your turn or your posture. An important thing to remember when taking the said relief is that you must take “complete” relief from the obstacle. In other words, if you are standing on a wagon path, make sure that the wagon path after taking relief no longer hinders your posture, turn or lying down before hitting your next shot.
One more thing: You can take relief from immobile obstacles anywhere on the track except if your ball is in a penalty area, or when your ball is in a lie that is clearly unreasonable to play (such as if it is in a bush).
When the USGA and R&A approved the modernized rules, they made several fundamental changes that helped everyday golfers. One of the biggest was in terms of bunkers, where the rules were relaxed so that players did not waste time nervously on their toes in the sand to avoid anything that could constitute a penalty. Golfers can now touch the sand in a variety of cases without worry, as long as they are not consciously trying to test the sand while doing so.
Among the things that is now allowed:
Conversely, here’s what you still are is it not allowed:
Like bunkers, the USGA and R&A have made significant changes to what golfers can do in penalty area areas. The biggest? There are no longer any special rules that apply to you when you play from a penalty area. So now you are allowed to ground your club and take training turns as you would anywhere else on the court. You can also remove loose obstacles as long as you do not move your ball, improve your lie or improve the conditions that affect your shot.
The green is another place where the rules have become friendlier. Say you accidentally make your ball move on the green, even with a training swing (a la Matthew Wolff at the WGC Concession). You can replace the ball without penalty. The same if you make your ball marker move.
There is also no penalty if your ball moves due to natural forces (such as wind or water). However, where you play your ball from after it has moved varies. If you had already marked your ball on the green, replaced it, and now a gust of wind comes up, you should return the ball where it was when you marked it. (Dunovant says, think of the ball as having “owned” that place by virtue of being lifted and replaced there). If your ball moves before you mark it, you are not replacing the ball at all, just play from the new place – even if that place is now away from the green.
Zach Johnson has won two major championships, but he is also known for this infamous tee shot at the 2019 Masters.
If you have a golf buddy who says, “Ha, he’s lying 1,” make sure he knows he just made a horrible joke … and that he’s wrong. Unless a player intended to hit the ball, it is not considered a stroke if he or she caused their ball to be knocked out of the tee. There is no penalty, plus under Rule 6.2b (5), the player may repeat the ball and continue… embarrassed but still lying 0.
Hitting a provisional ball is permitted under the rules to save time when you believe your original ball may be off the court or lost OUTSIDE of a penalty area. However, you must announce that you are playing a provisional, otherwise the next stroke you strike will be considered in play, as if you were taking a stroke-and-distance penalty.
However, there is a time when you must not hit a provisional: When you think a ball has been lost INSIDE a penalty kick field. Dunovant says that is because if the ball is in the penalty area, you have several options for exemption to choose from. If you have hit one so far, you will need to preview one of these options (rewinds from the previous location), which may overshadow which replacement option you choose.
One more thing about hitting a makeshift ball: If you hit one from the tee and it lands in the middle of the fairway and you’re pretty sure your original ball will be in an unsafe spot if it somehow gets found, you can choose not to search for the original ball. Although you cannot declare your ball lost if you play your provisional ball from somewhere closer to the hole than the estimated location on your original ball, your provisional ball will be in play. This is important to note, because if the original ball was found before you played the makeshift, either by you or someone else, and is in bounds, you must now play the original. And if the lie can’t be played, you can’t just use your makeshift ball. You have to take relief for an unplayable lie, which can mean you still have to go back to the tee and strike another blow.
According to Rule 16.4, a player may mark and lift a ball to see if it is in a state where relaxation is permitted. If you continue under this rule and it is determined that the ball is not embedded, you replace the ball in its original place and play from there. If the ball meets the objective conditions that define being embedded, a player can measure a club length, not closer to the hole, from the spot just behind where the ball was embedded (so that the course mark is not in the relief area) and take a free drop.
What defines whether a ball is embedded? First, the ball must be inside your own pitch mark as a result of the previous stroke. This means that if your ball is put in the ground because someone stepped on it or ran over it with a cart, the ball is not embedded. The ball must also be at least partially below the surface of the earth. So if the ball is just in really deep grass but resting on the surface, it is not embedded under the rules.
Although it is sometimes difficult because OB limits are not always continuous on golf courses, the standard for determining whether a ball is off the course is straight forward: the whole ball must be off the field for the ball to be considered OB. So if there is a painted line and half of the ball is on the painted line and half is on the court, the ball is in play. If there are bets where you might use string from bet to bet but you do not have a string and you see it if part of the ball is on the court, you are in play. If the whole ball touches the painted line, no one touches the court, then it is OB.
Maybe you are lucky and your ball remained in play, but now it is close to an OB limit and that OB limit is a chain fence that inhibits your turn. In that situation, unfortunately, there is no exemption from the border object. You have to play hard, Dunovant says, or you can take unplayable ball relief for one penalty stroke.
Another note: If your ball is within bounds, you are allowed to stand off the court and still play the shot.
You hit your drive into the rough from the tee, go where you think your ball is, and hit your second shot short of the green. You hit your ball up on the green with your third, but when you mark it, you realize it’s not your ball. What now? In match play, the hole is over because the penalty for playing a wrong ball is loss of hole. In stroke play, the right way to proceed is to correct your mistake. That means you have to go back and play your original ball. Hopefully you will be able to find it, and if you do, you add two strokes as a penalty for playing the wrong ball, but you do not count any of the strokes you hit with the wrong ball. You hit 4 and you keep playing.
If you cannot find your original ball within three minutes of searching, it is destined to be lost. Unfortunately, you now have to take the punch-and-distance penalty for this and return to the tee. Once you are there, add the two strokes to play the wrong ball and now you hit 5.
There is a remarkable difference between the options a player has when he takes relief after hitting a ball into a red penalty area versus yellow. Red bets allow players to also take lateral relief (up to two club lengths no closer to the hole) from which the ball entered the penalty area in addition to returning to the spot from the previous shot and back-on-the-line relief where you can drop anywhere on an imaginary line drawn from the hole through the point where the ball last crossed into the penalty area. The last two are the only options if the penalty area is yellow. All options require a player to take a one-of-a-kind penalty, but the player also has the option to play the ball as it lies.