How confident are you in the Rules of Golf? I am not an expert in the Rules of Golf so I make sure I review the most common rules at the start of each golf season to get my “golf brain” ready for golf league season.
I also want to know the rules that can help me! Plus, I don’t want a penalty because I didn’t know the governing bodies (USGA and R&A) changed a rule. For example, did you know the governing bodies announced five rules changes in 2023? The two changes that caught my eye are the “ball moved by natural forces” and the “back-on-the line” relief change.
Ball Moved by Natural Forces (or the Rick Fowler Rule)
A new exception provides that a ball at rest must be replaced if natural forces moves it to another area of the course or comes to rest out of bounds after being dropped, placed or replaced. Some call this the “Rick Flower Rule” because of what happened to him at the 2019 Waste Management. This exception is to protect the player from getting unfair penalties. Ricky had a five shot lead before the debacle on the 11th hole when Ricky had multiple penalties because a “natural force” (wind, water, gravity) kept moving his ball from the general area back into the penalty area. Here is the video of the event.
This 2023 change is an “exception” and doesn’t change the rule that if your ball is in the general area and moved by natural forces that there is no penalty and you play from the new spot. For example, you hit your ball in the fairway, a gust of wind moves your ball while you are deciding what club to hit, you now must hit from the new spot (no penalty). The other exception to ball moved by natural forces deals with the putting green (see Rule 9.3 Exception 1) which basically states that if you marked it, you own that spot and you replace the ball but remember, if it is not marked and it moves (even if it is off the green) you play from where it ends up.
It’s really important to know what to do when your ball moves (especially in the general area) because if you play from the wrong spot it is a 2-stroke penalty. Here is a good video from GUR LLC Golf on various situations when your ball moves in the general area (note: it does not include the new rule).
Back-on-the-line Relief Change
You must drop on the line now and the ball can roll within one-club length in any direction (basically, think of the relief area as a one club-length circle around the ball). What makes this interesting is that the ball could roll forward and come to rest closer to the hole; which is usually not allowed when taking relief. At first I thought this was so odd since, as golfers, it is drilled into us that the ball cannot be “closer to the hole” when taking relief. As I thought about the logic for this new rule, I rationalized it as follows – because the drop is “on a line” a golfer could have chosen to drop closer on the line so it’s not an advantage to have it roll closer to the hole. I have no idea if this is the reasoning but it was how I came to terms with the new rule.
I saw a video by GIR Golf LLC explains the difference between the new rule requiring you drop on the line versus the old procedure which let you drop within one club-length of the line. The old drop process gave you a bit more “wiggle room” to try and create a better out come. For example, you could perhaps have a better line to the green by being allowed to drop one club length to the left of the line. That’s not an option now. The ball must be dropped on the line.
Also, most golfers know if the ball rolls outside the penalty area, you re-drop the ball. With this new rule you must re-drop on the line but you don’t have to drop on the exact same spot on the line as the first drop, you can drop on a different location on the line (see definition of relief area for more detail).
Other Rules I Find Useful to Know
I am also always amused each year how many golfers I play with don’t use rules to their advantage. Sometimes they don’t know about the rule and most often times they use the rules incorrectly. Here are a few that come to mind…
Embedded Ball (Rule 16.3)
Basically, if your ball is embedded in its own pitch mark in the general area you can take free relief. To be “embedded” part of the ball must be below the level of the ground. If the ball is embedded you can remove the ball from the pitch mark, relief reference point is directly behind where the ball was embedded, determine relief area (one club-length, in general area, no nearer the hole) and drop the ball.
It can be very wet in Greenville so it always surprises me when I play with a golfer that doesn’t know this rule. They also don’t seem to know how to take relief, or know that they can clean their ball, and don’t know they can also substitute the ball.
Cleaning (Rule 14.1.c) or Substituting a Ball
Everyone knows you can clean your ball when you mark and lift it on the putting green but a lot of times I’ll be in a group and someone will ask, as they pick up their ball, “can I clean my ball?” One way to think about it is that you always can clean or substitute your ball when you are taking relief (free relief or for a penalty).
The surefire way to know when you can clean your ball is to know the four exceptions (or when you cannot clean your ball). You cannot clean your ball when:
- You are trying to Identify the ball – the exception here is you can clean it just enough to identify your ball.
- You are asked to mark your ball because it interferes with play of another golfer.
- You want to determine if your ball is damage (e.g., cracked or cut is the only time a ball is “damaged”).
- You want to see if your ball lies in a condition that allows relief. For example, to determine if a ball is embedded. If you determine you do get relief then you can clean your ball (but don’t clean it before you make the determination).
You can always substitute a ball when you are between holes but when else can you substitute a ball? It is tricky to find in the rules but the key is to look for the words “or another ball.” For example, if you read Rule 6.3 (ball used in play of hole), the language for taking relief reads “the player may use either the original ball or another ball (Rule 14.3a).
It is important to know that you cannot just decide to substitute a ball during the play of the hole. If your ball gets scuffed from hitting the cart path or you get a mud ball on a wet course that’s just bad luck. You must play the hole with that ball. You can put a new ball in play on your next hole.
What is a damaged ball? I play with many golfers that think a scuffed ball is a “damaged ball” – it is not. Per the Rules of Golf only a cut or crack in a ball qualifies as a damaged ball (Rule 4.2.c).
Restoring a “Worsened Condition” Rule 8.1.d
Rule 8 is “Course played as it is found.” Golfers all know they are to play the course as they find it but there is a clause that a lot of golfers don’t know. This clause is fascinating to me and you may never need it but it’s good to know (especially around the green). Rule 8.1.d addresses the situation when the course is not in the same condition as you found it. Specially, Rule 8.1.d says that if the course condition is worsened by another player (or animal, artificial object) after your ball comes to rest you can restore the “worsened condition.”
The most common example given is that your ball is at rest close to the green (but not on it) and another player hits their ball in front of your ball which makes a pitch mark right in front of your ball. So, the condition of the course was made worse in front of your ball and you can now restore the area back to it’s original condition (i.e. repair that pitch mark). However, if the pitch mark was already there when your ball came to rest that’s just bad luck.
Another example is if your ball is near a bunker and a player hits out of the bunker and sand lands on (or in front of) your ball. Assuming the sand was not on your ball when it came to rest, you can clean your ball and brush the sand off the ground in front of your ball.
You also can mark and clean your ball when you restore a worsened condition; and if you can’t restore the area, you get a one club-length relief area.
Abnormal Course Condition “Relief Area”
It drives me crazy when someone tells me I must take relief in the “same condition” when taking relief from an abnormal course condition. The clarification of the rule states “There is nothing in Rule 16.1 that requires them to maintain the identical condition.” You can read the full explanation in the clarifications for Rule 16.1. but basically your ball must stay in the same “area of the course” and there are five areas of the course: teeing area, putting area, penalty area, bunkers, and general area – so there is no distinction between rough and fairway in this instance because they are in the same general area. That’s why when you take free relief in a bunker for temporary water, or a dangerous animal you must drop in the bunker because you must be in the same “area” (not condition). If you take relief in a different “area” it comes with a penalty.
There are options that allow you to take relief in a different “area of the course” (remember there are five areas of the course) but you don’t get free relief. For example, using the bunker, let’s say you take free lateral relief (2-club lengths) in the bunker from a fire ant hill (dangerous animal condition, Rule 16.2) but you still don’t feel comfortable in the bunker with the ants. You want out of the bunker so your next option is basically to take “stroke and distance” relief with a one-stroke penalty to get out of the bunker or take a 2-stroke penalty (back-on-the-line) outside the bunker. There are four options for taking an unplayable ball in the bunker (see rule 19.3b which has a diagram of the options).
There’s a good video from GIR golf on YouTube that walks through various dangerous animal situations including when your ball lands in a penalty area and there is an alligator (watch at around 8 mins). Basically, if you determine you would play the ball as it lies in the penalty area (if the gator was not there) you can take free relief in another part of the penalty area (if you think it is safe); otherwise, you can take relief outside the penalty area for a one-stroke penalty (using one of the various options of the penalty relief procedure).
One Club Length Versus Two-Club Lengths When Taking Relief
“How many club lengths do I take?” There are only two instances when 2-club lengths are used to determine a drop area. They are unplayable ball and lateral relief. A bit more about each:
- Unplayable ball – A player can declare the ball unplayable any where on the course except penalty areas. The USGA has a good diagram for unplayable options in the general area in Rule 19.2 Some golfers I have played with do not realize you can declare you ball unplayable in a bunker which gives you four options . For example, did you know you can take stroke and distance for one penalty stroke? The USGA has a good unplayable ball video on YouTube and there is a good review from the USGA FAQ section.
- Lateral Relief – The red penalty relief procedure allows you to take 2-club lengths to determine the drop area. As a review, the penalty areas have the following relief options:
- Yellow and Red: play the ball as it lies which has no penalty
- Yellow and Red: stroke and distance for one penalty stroke
- Yellow and Red: back-on-the-line for one penalty stroke
- Red only: Lateral relief – 2-club lengths from where the ball last crossed the penalty area. One penalty stroke.
Relief from a Cart Path
We would all love to take relief from the side of the cart path that gives us the best shot but that isn’t how the rules works. It’s another procedure many golfers get wrong because they don’t take the nearest point of complete relief. The USGA video is a good refresher. And, You must also stay in the same “area” of the course so what happens when the relief area you think is correct is not in the same area. Jay Roberts has a great Cart Path Relief video with this situation (and Jay demonstrates it could be to your advantage). Jay Roberts also has a great video titled “4 Mistakes when Taking Free Relief from a Cart Path.” For example, don’t take your ball off the cart path until you make a decision on what you want to do!
You may have read this post and thought to yourself that you know all these rules so no need for a review. If yes, that’s great! I always seem to feel the need to review even simple rules at the start of golf season.
If you are looking for sources of rules reviews (other than the USGA and R&A), I usually learn about interesting Rules situations from following some of my favorite Rules guys on Instagram or YouTube. They include: Jay Roberts Golf, GolfRules Question, and GIR LLC Golf, Jay Roberts is really good at making rules simple and he is so good that the USGA recently hired him.
As I said I am not an expert, but I try to do my best. When playing with friends for fun I really don’t care how closely anyone follow the rules. In league or in competition, it gives me peace of mind to know rules so that I don’t get overly stressed when I find myself in a sticky situation on the course.
Happy golfing in 2023 and may the golf rules be kind to you!