Category Archives: rules

Know the Rules: The Putting Green

There are certain things you can and cannot do on the putting green. Rule 16, The Putting Green, covers only a few of them. Some of these things have been covered before in this weekly series, but here is the putting green collection of rules all in one place. Hopefully, most of it is familiar to you already.

You may lift your ball after marking it and clean it if you wish to (16-1b).

If the ball, after it has been replaced, moves accidentally in picking up the marker, the ball must be replaced and there is no penalty (20-3a). A ball on the green may not be touched if it is not marked – one-stroke penalty (18-2a).

You may repair old hole plugs, ball marks, and damage to the green caused by the impact of the ball, but no other damage that might assist subsequent play (such as a damaged lip on the hole) (16-1c).

If you play a stroke when your ball is on the putting green and your ball hits another ball that is on the putting green, you incur a two-stroke penalty. The ball you hit must be replaced, and you play your ball from where it came to rest. (19-5a) If your ball was not on the putting green and it hit a ball that was, proceed as before, but there is no penalty.

If there is causal water on the green between your ball and the hole, you can lift your ball and place it on the nearest spot that provides you relief, but not nearer to the hole. That spot might not be on the putting green, but may not be in a hazard. (25-1)

If you hit your ball onto the wrong putting green (one that is not part of the hole you’re playing), you may not play the ball from there. You must take relief. Lift the ball and drop it one club-length from the nearest point of relief, which point may not be in a hazard or on the putting green. (25-3)

You may not use a “putting ball” when you reach the green. You must putt and hole out with the ball you teed off with, or put into play because the original ball became lost, out of bounds, unfit for play, or substituted according to the rules. (15-1)

You may not stand astride the line of your putt when making a stroke. Two-stroke penalty if you do. This rule effectively bans croquet-style putting. You may stand astride a line connecting the ball and the hole if this is not the line of your putt. If you take a stance astride the line of your putt to avoid interfering with another player’s line, there is no penalty. (16-1e)

The person attending the flagstick may not be hit by the ball by a stroke made on the putting green. Two-stroke penalty. (17-3)

Sand that has spilled onto the surface of the putting green is a loose impediment (Definitions) and may be removed without penalty. (24-1)

A ball is holed out when it comes to rest within the circumference of the hole and all of it lies below the level of the lip of the hole. (Definitions)

If a ball comes to rest between the flagstick and the lip of the hole and is not holed out according to definition, the player may move or remove the flagstick. If the ball falls in the hole, the ball is considered to have been holed with his last stroke. Otherwise, the player must replace the ball on the lip of the hole and play without penalty. (17-4)

You may not touch the line of your putt (two-stroke penalty) except to remove loose impediments, repairing the green, measuring, replacing the ball, or pressing down a ball-marker. You may rest your putter on the green in front of your ball while addressing it as long as you do not press anything down. (16-1a)

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Know the Rules: Your Questions

We’re about halfway through this series of posts, so it’s time to take a break and do something different. There’s a rules quiz lined up for next week, and the week after that we’ll resume the lessons. Believe me, I’m learning a lot just by writing these posts, so I can’t wait to get moving.

Today I want to do something pretty simple. Enter a comment below to describe a situation on the course that was out of the ordinary and how you used the rules to resolve it. Could be anything. You don’t have to limit it to the rules we’ve talked about so far.

Or, if you still aren’t sure what you should have done, say that, and I might have an answer, or perhaps a reader who knows more about the rules than I do (I’m no expert, believe me) can comment. Got it? Then fire away.


Know the Rules: Ball at Rest, in Motion

There are certain things you should not do when the golf ball is at rest (Rule 18). There are certain things you should not do when the golf ball is in motion (Rule 19).

When the ball is at rest, it can be moved without making a stroke at it. You might do this when you’re removing some debris (loose impediments), if you lift it when not permitted, or if it moves after you have addressed it. In those cases, you must replace the ball (put it back where it was) and take a penalty of one stroke. Except (there are always exceptions):

• In searching for a ball covered by sand, in the replacement of loose impediments moved in a hazard while finding or identifying a ball, in probing for a ball lying in water in a water hazard or in searching for a ball in an obstruction or an abnormal ground condition,
• In repairing a hole plug or ball mark,
• In measuring,
• In lifting a ball under a Rule,
• In placing or replacing a ball under a Rule,
• In removing a loose impediment on the putting green,
• In removing movable obstructions.

In these cases, merely replace the ball. There is no penalty.

If a ball in play and at rest is moved by another ball in motion after a stroke, the moved ball must be replaced.

If an outside agency, such as the wind, gravity, or an animal moves the ball, it must be played where it comes to rest without penalty. One course I play on has a problem with foxes running into the fairway and stealing golf balls. Drop another ball as near as you can to where the original ball was and play on without penalty.

When a ball in motion struck by you is stopped or deflected by you or your equipment (and to be complete, your partner or your caddy) take a one-stroke penalty and play the ball as it lies.

When a ball in motion struck by you is stopped or deflected by another ball at rest, play your ball as it lies without penalty, unless both balls were on the putting green. In that case you must proceed as before, but take a two-stroke penalty.

These two items are in Rule 19

In addition, a ball struck on the putting green may not hit the flagstick, whether attended or unattended, or the person attending the flagstick. If so, take a two-stroke penalty and play the ball as it lies (Rule 17-3)

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Know the Rules: Loose Impediments

Recall that artificial objects which interfere with play are obstructions. Natural objects that interfere are called loose impediments. Since golf is meant to be played in Nature as we find it, the rules for loose impediments are much different than for obstructions.

Loose impediments include stones, leaves, twigs, branches, and such. Goose poop is a loose impediment, as is any other animal waste matter. (The Rule book more politely calls it dung.) Worm casts are loose impediments. I’m not sure what that is. Maybe it’s because we don’t have them where I live. We do have goose . . ., oh, never mind.

There is a however regarding loose impediments. A big however. A loose impediment cannot be something fixed or growing (a weed), solidly embedded, or adhering to the ball (mud, goose poop). Then it wouldn’t be loose, would it? I played with a guy who hit his ball next to the green and it came to rest a few inches away from a thick-stemmed thistle. The thistle was in the way of his backswing. He proceeded to stomp the thistle and beat it into oblivion with his sand wedge, which he then used to chip on onto the green and sink the putt for his par. Or so he called it.

Loose impediments may be removed without penalty, except if the impediment and the ball are both in the same hazard. When your ball is near a pine cone, you may remove the pine cone, but if they are both in a bunker, the pine cone stays put.

If you cause the ball to move when removing a loose impediment, except when the ball is on the putting green, there is a one-stroke penalty and you must replace the ball. For example, your ball is lying against a twig. If you think the ball might move when you remove the twig, leave the twig alone.

When the ball is in motion, a loose impediment that might influence the movement of the ball may not be removed. Camilo Villegas was disqualified from a tournament in 2011 when he chipped up a hill. The ball rolled back down, and Villegas swatted away a loose divot lying in the hill in the way of the ball. The penalty would be two strokes, but because he signed his scorecard without taking the penalty, he got the DQ.

All this is Rule 23.

Loose impediments can be tricky. Loose sand and soil are loose impediments on the putting green, but nowhere else. Rory McIlroy got caught earlier this year brushing away loose sand that was in the way of his shot, but not on the putting green. Two strokes, courtesy of his playing partner, Luke Donald.

Loose impediments can also be quite funny. Here, from the Decisions, are examples of loose impediments: half-eaten pear (though no pear tree is in sight), banana peel, ant hill, dead land crab, snake (but only a dead one. A live snake is an outside agency.), a fallen tree, but only if it is detached from its stump.

An insect on your ball is a loose impediment and may be removed, but be careful not to move the ball if it does not lie on the putting green. If the ball is in a bunker, the insect may be removed only as long as it (the insect) is not touched.

If you are about to take a drop, you may remove loose impediments before you drop the ball.

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Know the Rules: Unplayable Lies

At some point you will hit your ball into a place where you don’t have a shot. Trying to put the club on the ball just isn’t possible or would be a very bad idea. In this case, you can declare an unplayable lie and get relief, but under the penalty of one stroke. The options are pretty simple, and there are three.

You can:
a. hit another shot from the spot where the ball you just hit was played, or
b. take a drop within two club-lengths of where the ball lies, but not nearer to the hole, or
c. take a drop on the line connecting the hole and where the ball lies, extended as far backwards from the where the ball lies as you wish.

Again, all these relief options come with a penalty of one stroke.

If you declare an unplayable lie in a bunker, relief under b. and c. must be taken in the bunker.

You may declare your ball to be unplayable anywhere on the course except when it is in a water hazard.

You may clean your ball before dropping it, or substitute another ball.

The player is the sole judge of whether the ball is unplayable.

That’s about it on unplayable lies. This Rule 28.

I used this rule once to help myself out. I hit the ball off the tee of a par-3 hole to the left of the green on a bank of grass with a deep bunker between the ball and the green. I chunked my second shot into the bunker, against a deep vertical face. Instead of trying to take a stroke or two to get out of the bunker, I declared an unplayable lie, took relief under option a. on the bank of grass (where I hit the shot originally), and chipped in for a bogey.

Let me recommend that if your ball comes to rest against an exposed tree root, that you declare an unplayable lie and take relief. Hitting a tree root with your full swing is a good way to sprain your wrist or worse.

Deep Rules: If a ball is declared unplayable and when dropped rolls into a lie that is also unplayable, the player may invoke the unplayable lie rule again.

It is not necessary to find a ball for it to be declared unplayable. In this case, the player may take relief under option a. Relief under options b. and c. may not be taken unless the ball is found.

The procedures involving the combination of wrong balls and unplayable lies are so involved, I don’t think you want me to explain it. Just avoid the whole affair by putting a mark on your ball and making sure the ball you find is really yours.

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Know the Rules: Lost Ball and Out of Bounds

In friendly games, if the ball sails OB or looks like it could be lost, most players will drop another one right there and play on as if nothing had happened. Or, they go to where they think the ball went, can’t find it, then drop another and play on as if nothing had happened. Let’s get this right.

If you think you hit the ball out of bounds or that it might be lost, this is what you do. Inform your playing companions that you will play a provisional ball, using just those words. Saying, “I’m going to tee up another one,” or “Let’s try that again,” or the like doesn’t count. You must also play the provisional ball before you go looking for the original ball.

So now you’ve hit the provisional ball and all is well with it. What you would do next is look for the original ball. If you find it and it is not out of bounds, then it is the ball in play and you must pick up the provisional ball. If the original ball is found out of bounds, or you cannot find the ball after having searched for five minutes, the provisional ball is in play. You do not have to look for your ball, but if it is found by anyone before you make a stoke with the provisional ball, the original ball is in play.

You may play the provisional ball without obligation until it reaches or passes the point where the original ball is likely to be. If you make a stroke with the provisional ball with it lying at or nearer to the hole than that point, the provisional ball is in play and the original ball is lost.

The penalty for a ball lost or out of bounds is stroke and distance. Say you hit your tee shot out of bounds. That’s one stroke, the penalty stroke is two, and hitting the provisional is three. When you get to the provisional ball, you will be hitting your fourth shot with it.

This is Rule 27.

Out of bounds is generally marked by white stakes.

Tip: when you play a provisional ball, make sure it is one you can distinguish from the original ball. If the provisional ball ends up near the original ball and you cannot tell them apart, then both balls are lost and you have to go back to the original spot and hit again, under a second stroke-and-distance penalty.

Deep Rules: A player may, at any time, play another ball from where the original ball was last played under a penalty of one stroke. That ball is not provisional, but is the ball now in play.

If the ball is lost in an immovable obstruction, in an abnormal ground condition, or has been moved by an outside agency, the player must proceed under the rules governing those cases.

If you think your ball might be out of bounds or lost, but might also have came to rest in a water hazard, you may play a provisional ball. If you find the ball in the water hazard, you must abandon the provisional ball.

The friendly game scenario where a player drops a ball where the ball was lost or OB and plays from there? The player must go back and play properly under stroke and distance and take an additional two-stroke penalty for breaking the rule.

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Know the Rules: Immovable Obstructions

An obstruction is anything artificial except fences, walls, stakes, etc, that define out-of bounds. An obstruction that cannot be moved with reasonable effort or undue delay or without causing damage is an immovable obstruction. You get relief from an immovable obstruction when the ball lies in or on it, or if it interferes with your stance or the intended area of your swing. Common examples are cart paths, sprinkler heads, bridges, and exposed drainage lines.

Relief in this circumstance is complicated and depends on where the ball is. In the following four cases, the ball may be cleaned after it is lifted.

1. If it lies anywhere but on the green, in a bunker, or on the teeing ground, the player may lift and drop the ball within one club-length of the nearest point of relief, but not nearer the hole, without penalty. The nearest point of relief in this case may not be on the green or in a hazard.

2. If the ball lies in a bunker, the ball may lifted and dropped as in 1., but the drop must take place within the bunker. Alternatively, the player may choose to drop the ball outside the bunker, on a line connecting the spot where the ball lies and the hole, such line extended as far back as the player chooses, with a penalty of one stroke.

3. If the ball lies on the putting green, the player may lift the ball and place it (NOTE: not drop it) at the nearest point of relief without penalty. The nearest point of relief may be off the green, but not in a hazard.

4. If the ball lies on the teeing ground (example: you hit a dribbler that trickled over right next to the pole holding the ball washer that happens to be on the teeing ground), you may lift and drop the ball without penalty in accordance with 1.

Deep rules:
You may not take relief if interference by anything other than an immovable obstruction makes the stroke impracticable, or if you are taking relief to make a stroke that is clearly unreasonable or which requires an unreasonable stance, swing, or direction of play.

If the ball is in a water hazard, relief must be taken according to rules for water hazards, not the rule for immovable obstructions.

There are twenty-six Decisions concerning immovable obstructions. The spirit of the rule governs them. Here are a few examples to give you the idea.

Player determines nearest point of relief but is unable to make intended stroke. No further relief allowed.

Relief from the obstruction incidentally gives the player relief from interference in the original line of play. No problem.

Relief from one obstruction lands the ball in a spot interfered with by another obstruction. Take relief again.

Player needs relief for a ball lying on a bridge. Relief must be taken directly underneath the spot on the bridge where the ball lies. Maybe you should play it off the bridge.

Object interferes with abnormal stoke, but an abnormal stroke is reasonable under the circumstances, e.g., to play toward the hole you must hit the ball left-handed. Relief may be taken. The player may then take a right-handed stroke unless that stroke is interfered with in which case relief may be taken again.

Let me end this long post with a story from the European Tour. It was in Sandy Lyle’s Golf Hall of Fame 2012 induction speech.

Some years ago Tony Johnstone was playing with Seve Ballesteros, and both had driven over the hill and both went to find their ball. Tony Johnstone said “Seve, I’ve got a sprinkler head very close to my ball, can I get a drop?” So Seve came over, folded his arms, and said, “No.” Johnstone said, “If I move my foot back a little bit further, can I get a drop now?” Seve said, “No, Tony.” Well, Tony being like a little Jack Russell looked up at Seve and said, “That’s okay, this is your ball here anyway.”

See also Know the Rules: Movable Obstructions

My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at It will change everything about the way you play.

Know the Rules: Movable Obstructions

An obstruction is something that is artificial, except for walls, stakes, fences, etc., that define out of bounds. Growing trees, bushes, weeds, and such are natural objects and are not obstructions. They are part of the course. If an obstruction can be moved without unreasonable effort, without causing delay, and without causing damage, it is a movable obstruction.

To get relief for a ball lying beside a movable obstruction, you may move the obstruction. You do not get to lift your ball and drop it elsewhere. If the ball moves because of your moving the obstruction, you must replace the ball with no penalty.

If the ball lies in or on the obstruction, you may lift the ball and move the obstruction. The ball is then to be dropped as near as possible to the spot directly under where it lay in or on the obstruction, and not nearer the hole. You may clean the ball when so lifted.

If the ball is moving, an obstruction that might influence it, other than the flagstick or equipment of any of the players, may not be moved. The penalty for doing so is two strokes.

All this is in Rule 24-1. Now for the fun stuff.

An incorrect ruling regarding this rule helped Ernie Els win the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994. Els drove his ball into the left rough. His shot to the green was blocked by a camera tower. The tower was mounted on a tracked vehicle, which could have been moved without delay, but the tower was ruled to be an immovable obstruction (to be discussed next week). Els got a free drop to a better lie which most likely saved him a stroke on the hole. He went on to beat Colin Montgomery and Loren Roberts in a playoff.

Deep Rules: You may not hold onto the ball when you move an obstruction. That would be a violation of Rule 18-2a, and a two-stroke penalty would apply.

A ball can become lost in an obstruction, but there must be reasonable evidence that this occurred. A surmise is not good enough. Without reasonable evidence that the ball was lost in the obstruction, the ball must be treated as a lost ball. If the ball is lost in the obstruction, the obstruction is to be moved and another ball dropped as near as possible to the spot directly under the place where the ball last crossed the outermost limits of the obstruction, but not nearer to the hole.

See also Know the Rules: Immovable Obstructions

My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at It will change everything about the way you play.

Know the Rules: Hitting the Wrong Ball

The embarrassing error of hitting the wrong ball comes about for one of two reasons. Either the person hitting the ball wasn’t paying attention, or the ball that was hit was not properly identified. There’s really no other way this can happen, and the fixes are easy.

Put an identifying mark on your ball with a colored felt-tip pen. This is suggested by Rules 6-5 and 12-2. It can be a dot, two dots, something that makes your ball stand out from the others being played by the members of your group. I fill in a dimple with green ink next to the manufacturer’s logo. Tell the members of your group what ball you’re playing and show them the mark before you tee off on the first hole.

When you get up to the ball that you think is yours, look at it. Check to see that it is the same brand as yours and has the same mark you drew on it. Get into the habit of checking before you hit any shot. Check before you hit your tee shot to be sure your ball is marked. Check on every shot up to the green. Once you get to the green, check to be sure the ball you’re about to mark and pick up is yours.

Let’s say that despite these precautions, you hit someone else’s ball. What now?

You must correct the mistake. Go to where your ball lies and play it, taking a two-stroke penalty. The stroke you made on the wrong ball does not count on your score. The owner of the ball you hit must place a ball on the spot where the wrong ball was hit and play from there, with no penalty. If you do not correct your mistake before you tee off on the next hole, you are disqualified. These procedures are found in Rule 15-3.

So far, so good. Now let’s have some fun. What happens if you hit a wrong ball, correct it by hitting your ball, but come to realize that wasn’t your ball, either. You’ve hit a wrong ball twice in a row. Fortunately the Rule book is kind. You only have to take one two-stroke penalty for hitting a wrong ball, not a four-stroke penalty for hitting two wrong balls.

Deep Rule: Say you and another player in your group are playing the same brand and number of ball, and neither are marked. (You can sense something bad is about to happen, can’t you?) Say that you both hit up to the green and each ball settles into deep rough on the right side. You both go up to where the two balls are lying and see that they are about a foot apart, but which ball is whose? You don’t want to take a penalty for hitting a wrong ball, so what do you do?

That was a trick question. Right ball or wrong ball is not the issue here. If you cannot identify which ball is yours, it is a lost ball (Definitions). Since neither of you marked the ball in play, each ball is lost and each of you must take a stroke-and-distance penalty. This situation, or some form of it where a player is confronted with two balls and is unable to say which one is his/hers, happens more often than you would think in amateur competition.

Please. Always put an identifying mark on your ball. Always check to see that the ball you’re about to hit is yours. It’s so simple to do, and it saves you so much grief.

My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at It will change everything about the way you play.

USGA To Rule On Anchoring the Putter

The April 30 edition of GolfWorld magazine magazine contained a brief article saying that the USGA and R&A are seeking a way to ban or limit anchoring the putter for inclusion in the 2016 rules revision.

The opening paragraph in GolfWorld reads:
“A change to the Rules of Golf that would limit golfers’ ability to anchor long putters and other clubs against the body is looking more likely, judging from R&A officials’ comments during a press conference April 23 to promote this summer’s British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.”

The article described “discussions with the USGA on the matter as proceeding at an intense pace.”

Further, “The governing bodies are looking at Rule 14, which defines a stroke, as opposed to restricting the length of the club.”

So far, this looks to me like a solution in search of a problem. There was no controversy until last year when Webb Simpson won twice and Keegan Bradley won a major championship, both using an anchored putter. If you look at the Strokes Gained, Putting rankings, there is no trend for players who anchor their putter to be at the top.

However one putts, one still has to read the green correctly, get the speed right, aim oneself properly, get the staring line right, make a flawless stroke, and have supreme confidence all the while. I don’t know how an anchored putter makes those things easier to achieve. I have seen both Simpson and Bradley putt in other tournaments where they couldn’t hit their hat.

How a Rules change would affect the career of players who have established themselves putting one way and would in 2016 have to learn a completely different style, I will leave to the players affected and their attorneys.

The real issue for the world of golf concerns players who have a bad back. I wrote earlier this year in this space about the effect that banning a long putter would have on the many thousands of amateur golfers who play with a bad back and need a long putter in order to keep playing.

By targeting Rule 14 rather than restricting the length of the club, it would appear that the USGA is taking our needs into account. We can only encourage them by writing to them to express our concern.

If you need an accommodation in putting because of a bad back, please write to the USGA to express your concern over any rule change that would affect your ability to play.

The USGA does not seem to have an e-mail address for general correspondence. Their mailing address is:

The United States Golf Association
P.O. Box 708
Far Hills, N.J. 07931

You may also telephone them at 908-234-2300, FAX 908-234-9687.