The Rules of Golf: A Comprehensive Guide to the Game

A lawnmower cutting the grass at a golf course.

The game of golf has many complexities like the swing and the vernacular but perhaps the most exacting of them all are the Rules of Golf. Learning and properly interpreting all 24 Rules of Golf can be overwhelming but there are resources available to teach golfers of all skill levels about the complex rules of the game.

So, what are the Rules of Golf?

The Rules of Golf are the regulations and principles by which the game of golf is conducted. They are intended to comprehensively cover and provide answers and interpretations to the many issues and situations that arise while playing the game.

The United States Golf Association and the R&A work together to constantly reinterpret and simplify the rules of golf. Thus, rules manuals and their interpretations are updated every two to three years with the most recent update occurring in 2019.

All golfers are expected to have a basic understanding of the Rules because it helps to speed up play, ensures the golf course is properly cared for and allows golfers to play with others fairly and equitably.

The Rules of Golf are dense and packed with a lot of information so the casual golfer should only focus on grasping the broad interpretations of the Rules. However, the rules officials used by the PGA TOUR and other competitive golf tournaments must know and interpret every rule and are held to the highest standard in the game.

The Rules of Golf

The Rules of Golf are broken into nine sections to help group similar rules and principles. Here is a summary of each of the 24 Rules of Golf collected directly from the Player’s Edition of the USGA’s Official Guide to the Rules of Golf, 2019 edition.

Section 1: Fundamentals of the Game (Rules 1-4)

Rule 1 – The Game, Player Conduct and the Rules.

Golf is played in a round of 18 or fewer holes on a course by striking a ball. Each hole starts with a stroke from the teeing area and ends when the ball is holed on the putting green.

For each stroke, the player plays the course as they find it and plays the ball as it lies. Some exceptions do allow the player to alter conditions on the course or permit the player to hit the ball from a different place other than where it sits.

All players are expected to play within the spirit of the game by acting with integrity (i.e. follow the Rules and be honest with other golfers), showing consideration to others (i.e. prompt pace of play and ensuring safety of other golfers) and taking good care of the course (i.e. replacing divots and fixing ball marks).

Players are expected to recognize when a Rule is breached and to be honest in applying penalties to themselves. A penalty is applied when a breach of a Rule results from a player’s actions and is meant to cancel out any potential advantage.

There are three main penalty levels:

  1. One-Stroke Penalty – These are considered minor infractions and in both match play and stroke play, a one-stroke penalty is added to the player’s score on the hole where the infraction occurred.
  2. General Penalty – A general penalty is reserved for major infractions and differs depending on the type of play. In match play, the general penalty for a major infraction is the loss of the hole in which the infraction occurred. In stroke play, the general penalty results in the player receiving a two-stroke penalty.
  3. Disqualification – This is the most serious of the penalties and is assessed only when a breach is so serious the player has gained a significant advantage from the infraction. This is only really applicable in competition and isn’t reasonable to apply to a typical round of golf with friends.

Rule 2 – The Course

Golf is played on a course and any area deemed beyond the boundaries of the course is out of bounds. There are five areas of the course and knowing where the ball lies across the five areas is very important, especially when applying the Rules.

  1. General Area – this area is represented by everything not included in the following four areas.
  2. Teeing Area – the area where play on a hole begins.
  3. Penalty Area – the area of the golf course (i.e. water hazards) where a penalty is incurred when taking relief for a ball at rest within the penalty area’s parameters.
  4. Bunkers – an area of specially prepared sand, which is often a hollow from which turf or soil was removed.
  5. Putting Green (of the hole being played) – this is a special, closely mown area specifically manicured for the act of putting the ball at the hole.
USGA Diagram 2.2: Defined areas of the course.
USGA Diagram 2.2: Defined areas of the course.

Rule 3 – The Competition

There are two different and distinct forms of play: match play and stroke play.

Match play is a form of play in which a player or team and an opponent or another team compete against each other based on holes won, lost or tied. A hole is won when one side completes the hole with fewer total strokes, the opponent concedes the hole or the opponent receives the general penalty (loss of hole) as a result of a rules infraction.

A match is won when a player leads their opponent by more holes than remain to be played, the opponent concedes the match or the opponent is disqualified. In the event of a tie, the match continues one hole at a time until a winner is decided.

A player may concede an opponent’s next stroke; the hole being played or the entire match but only if it is clearly communicated. All concessions are final and can’t be withdrawn or declined.

Each player in match play has certain responsibilities to their opponent including telling them the correct number of strokes taken when asked, alerting opponents as soon as possible if a penalty is incurred and knowing the score of the match.

Stroke play is a form of play in which the player with the fewest strokes taken during the round is deemed the winner. Any player that fails to finish the hole by putting out will be disqualified.

However, for new and beginning golfers, it is appropriate to set a max score for each hole and for them to pick up their ball when that score is reached no matter where it is on the course. A common example of a max score is double par or a score that is twice the par for the hole.

If playing in a competitive stroke play competition, players must understand their responsibilities at the end of the round. Any breach of the following may result in disqualification.

  • Carefully check the scores entered for each hole are correct.
  • Make sure the person keeping score (known as a marker) certifies that the score on each hole is correct.
  • Don’t change a score without the marker’s knowledge.
  • Once a scorecard is turned in, scores can’t be changed.
  • Scorecards require two signatures, one from the player and one from the marker, that attest the score is true and accurate.

Rule 4 – The Player’s Equipment

Golfers must use clubs and golf balls that conform to the requirements of the Rules of Golf. A player must not start a round with more than 14 clubs but if starting play with less than 14 clubs, clubs may be added until the limit is reached.

Violating the 14-club rule will result in the player receiving the general penalty of two strokes (stroke play) or loss of hole (match play) with a maximum of four strokes or two holes lost. Once the breach is discovered, the clubs must be immediately taken out of play.

Section 2 – Playing the Round and Hole (Rules 5-6)

Rule 5 – Playing the Round

A round is playing 18 or fewer holes in the order set for the day, most often beginning at Hole 1 and finishing on Hole 18. Players must start at their designated starting time, also known as a tee time, because in competition, starting play early or late may result in the general penalty for the hole.

Golfers play in groups with the most commonly accepted limit being four players, also known as a foursome. Group sizes are limited to ensure a prompt pace of play. One group’s pace of play is likely to affect the length of time spent by others playing a round of golf, so slower groups are encouraged to allow faster groups to play through.

Pace of play recommendations include:

  • Shortening the amount of time needed to prepare for and make each stroke.
  • Move quickly from one place to another between strokes.
  • Move quickly to the next teeing area after completing a hole.
  • Prepare in advance for your next stroke while others are hitting.
  • Be ready to hit when it’s your turn.

Rule 6 – Playing a Hole

Play of a hole begins when a player makes a stroke at a ball from the teeing area. Players must play from the same set of tees, which are often color-coded, throughout the round. The ball must be played from behind and in between the tee markers in a space determined by measuring two-club lengths back from the tee markers.

USGA Diagram 6.2b: When ball is in teeing area.
USGA Diagram 6.2b: When ball is in teeing area.

The player must finish each hole with the same ball played from the teeing area except when their original ball is lost or comes to rest out of bounds or when another ball is substituted under the Rules of Golf (i.e. damaged from contact with cart path).

Making a stroke at a ball that is not the player’s ball is called ‘playing a wrong ball’. The player incurs the general penalty for playing a wrong ball and any strokes taken with the wrong ball are not counted.

The order of play, or the determination of which player hits next, on the teeing ground is determined by honor. Honor on the first hole is determined by draw or a random method like tossing a coin or a tee. On each subsequent teeing area, honor is determined by who won the previous hole in match play or who had the lowest score in stroke play. After each player has teed off, order of play is determined by the ball that is farther from the hole.

In match play, order of play is very important. A player that plays out of order may have their stroke recalled by their opponent.

‘Ready Golf’ is a common term used to express a desire to play quickly and abandon some of the Rule’s formalities, like playing out of turn, in order to save time.

Section 3 – Playing the Ball (Rules 7-11)

Rule 7 – Ball Search: Finding and Identifying Ball

Rule 7 allows the player to take reasonable actions to fairly search for a ball in play after each stroke so long as the player doesn’t improve the conditions of their next stroke and so any ball accidentally moved while searching for or identifying a ball doesn’t incur a penalty.

A player may move sand and water and bend grass, bushes and branches in searching for and identifying their golf ball. If a player takes such actions that improve their lie beyond what is reasonably fair, they will get the general penalty.

A player identifies a ball by seeing it come to rest or by locating their identifying mark. Golfers are not required to make identifying marks on their balls but are encouraged to do so to ensure they can differentiate their balls from others found on the course. Identifying marks include dots, circles or lines drawn on the ball or a company logo.

If a player is unable to identify a resting golf ball, the ball may be marked and lifted to identify it as long as it is replaced on its original spot. Lifting a ball without marking its original location will result in a one-stroke penalty.

Rule 8 – Course Played as It Is Found

The course is meant to be played as it is found and players are expected to accept the conditions affecting their next stroke and must not improve their lie.

Prohibited actions include the following:

  • Moving, bending or breaking any growing or attached natural object, boundary object or the tee marker on the teeing area of the hole being played.
  • Moving a loose impediment (natural objects like sticks, leaves and rocks not fixed or growing) to build a stance.
  • Alter the surface of the ground.
  • Remove or press down sand, loose soil or grass.
  • Remove dew, frost or water.

Permitted actions include:

  • Reasonable actions to remove loose impediments or movable obstructions (i.e. bunker rake).
  • Ground or rest the club lightly in front of or directly behind the ball (can’t do this in a bunker).
  • Firmly place feet in taking a stance including digging into sand or loose soil.
  • Fairly taking a stance to make a stroke. Golfers are not entitled to a normal stance or swing and must use the least intrusive course of action to deal with each situation.

Rule 9 – Ball Played as It Lies; Ball at Rest Lifted or Moved

This rule covers one of the central principles of the game of golf – ‘play the ball as it lies’. Players must play their ball at rest on the course as it lies except when the Rules require or allow them to play from another place (i.e. ball lost in a penalty area) or to lift a ball and then replace it on its original spot.

Lifting or deliberately touching your ball at rest or causing it to move (unless the Rules allow it) will incur a one-stroke penalty and the ball must be replaced on its original spot.

If a player’s ball comes to rest and is then moved by natural forces like wind or water, it must be played from its new location. A ball at rest lifted or moved by anyone or any outside influence must be replaced on its original spot.

All players should take care when moving near any non-moving ball as causing it to move may result in a one-stroke penalty.

Rule 10 – Preparing for and Making a Stroke; Advice and Help; Caddies

In making a stroke, the player must fairly strike the ball with the head of the club such that there is only momentary contact between the club and the ball and it is not pushed, scraped or scooped by the club. If the club double hits the ball, there is no penalty and it only counts as one stroke.

A fundamental challenge to the game of golf is deciding one’s strategy and tactics for playing the round. The Rules of Golf have limits on what advice, information and help players can give and receive during a competitive round of golf. Violating this will result in the assessment of a penalty.

Players must not give advice to anyone in the competition playing on the course, ask for advice from anyone but a caddie or touch another player’s equipment to learn information (i.e. what club they hit). Examples of advice include asking a player what club they hit or how to play a specific type of shot. Additionally, objects like alignment sticks must not be placed in such a way as to assist with lining up one’s feet or body while taking a stance to make a stroke.

Information considered to be general knowledge can be shared and doing so isn’t considered giving advice. Examples of general knowledge include asking for the yardage to the hole or asking about the placement or location of bunkers or water hazards.

Rule 11 – Ball in Motion Accidentally Hits Person, Animal or Object; Deliberate Actions to Affect Ball in Motion

This rule applies to any situation where a player’s ball is in motion because a stroke is made. There isn’t a penalty if a ball in motion accidentally hits another person, animal, equipment or anything else on the course. However, the player must play the ball as it lies accepting the result regardless of how favorable or unfavorable the result may be.

Penalties are assessed to players who purposefully deflect or stop a ball in motion or purposely position equipment in such a way to deflect or stop a ball. Additionally, players must not deliberately alter physical conditions or lift or move objects where the ball might come to rest.

However, there are exceptions where players may move a flagstick lying on the ground, a ball resting on the putting green or any other player’s equipment.

Part 4 – Specific Rules for Bunkers and Putting Greens (Rules 12-13)

Rule 12 – Bunkers

A bunker is a specially prepared area of sand in which turf or soil has been removed creating a hollow. It’s equally important to know what a bunker is and isn’t because bunkers have specially required rules that, if not followed, will result in the assessment of a penalty.

These aren’t part of a bunker:

  • The lip, wall or face at the edge of the bunker (prepared area) consists of soil, grass, stacked turf or other artificial materials.
  • Soil or any growing or attached natural objects (i.e. grass, bushes or trees) inside the edge of the bunker.
  • Sand that has spilled over the edge of the bunker.
  • All other areas of sand on the course that are not inside the edge of a bunker-like deserts, washes or waste areas.

A ball is considered in the bunker if it is inside the edge of the bunker and resting where sand would normally be or on top of or inside a loose impediment (leaves, sticks etc.), movable obstruction (rake or plastic bag) or any other abnormal condition (standing water or puddle) or integral object (stairs to enter or exit the bunker).

Players can remove loose impediments and movable obstructions. If the ball moves as a result, it must be replaced on its original spot. The player incurs one penalty stroke if the ball moves while removing loose impediments but not for moving movable obstructions.

Players are prohibited from deliberately touching the sand with their hands, clubs or the rake to test the condition of the sand to learn information before the next stroke. Additionally, players may not touch the sand with their club in the area directly in front of or behind the ball, in making a practice swing or during the takeaway of the backswing.

Doing so will cost you a minimum of one stroke per incident and possibly more if there is intent to improve the lie or test the condition of the sand.

Players may however dig in their feet to create a secure stance in the sand; use the rake to smooth the sand in caring for the course; place clubs, equipment and other objects in the bunker; lean on a club to rest or prevent a fall; or strike the sand in frustration or anger.

Rule 13 – Putting Greens

A ball is considered on the putting green when any part of it touches the green or lies on anything and is inside the edge of the green. It is important to know where the ball sits in relation to the putting green as there are special accommodations made for such circumstances that cannot occur anywhere else on the course.

A ball on a putting green may be lifted and cleaned but the spot of the ball must be marked with a coin, tee or other object before the ball is lifted. The ball must be replaced on the exact spot from which it was removed.

While playing, golfers may take either of the two following actions, no matter whether their ball is on the green or not:

  • Remove sand and loose soil on the putting green (but not anywhere else) without penalty.
  • Repair damage on the putting green, like ball marks and indentations, without penalty as a means for restoring the putting green as nearly as possible to its original condition. However, players may only use their hand, foot, normal ball-mark repair tool, tee, club or similar equipment and do so without delaying the pace of play.

Damage on the putting green includes ball marks, shoe damage, scrapes, scuffs, indentations, old hole plugs, turf plugs, seams of cut turf, animal tracks and embedded objects like sticks, acorns or tees. Not included in damage to the green include normal practices for maintaining the condition of the putting green like aeration holes or grooves, irrigation or rainwater, and natural surface imperfections like weeds or bare, diseased or uneven growth areas.

If you or anyone else accidentally moves your ball or ball-marker, simply replace it with no penalty. If natural forces like wind cause the ball to move the player either replaces it because they’ve already lifted and replaced it or plays the ball from the new spot because the ball hasn’t been lifted and replaced.

Players should not deliberately rub the surface or roll a ball to test the speed and characteristics of the putting green as this would be considered cheating and a two-stroke penalty assessed.

Sometimes golfers hit their balls onto putting greens not on the hole being played (called a wrong green). In this case, the player must take free relief (no penalty) and shouldn’t play their next shot off the wrong green.

USGA Diagram 13.1f: Free relief from wrong green.
USGA Diagram 13.1f: Free relief from wrong green.

The flagstick marks the placement of the hole and players should be knowledgeable about what can and can’t be done with the flagstick. Prior to a stroke being made, the flagstick can either remain in the hole or be removed.

A flag can only be removed while a ball is in motion if someone is specifically tasked with ‘tending the flag’, otherwise, it must stay put. Tending the flag is the act of holding the flag in place and removing it from the hole as another player’s ball approaches the hole.

If staying in the hole, the flagstick must remain in the center of the hole and be positioned in such a way as to not gain an advantage. If the ball strikes the flagstick there is no penalty and the ball must be played as it lies. If the ball comes to rest against the flagstick and hovers above the hole, the flagstick may be moved and if the ball falls into the hole it is considered holed.

If the ball overhangs the lip of the hole, the player is allotted a reasonable time to walk to the hole plus ten additional seconds to see if it’ll fall in. If the ball does fall into the hole within that time frame the previous stroke counts and the ball is holed. If the ball falls in after the allotted time, then the player is assessed a one-stroke penalty and the ball is considered holed.

Section 5 – Lifting and Returning a Ball to Play (Rule 14)

Rule 14 – Procedures for Ball: Marking, Lifting and Cleaning; Replacing on Spot; Dropping in Relief Area; Playing from Wrong Place

This rule covers when and how a player may mark the spot of their ball at rest, lift and clean the ball and put it back into play. When a ball has been lifted or moved and is to be replaced, the same ball must be set down on its original spot.

However, when taking free relief or penalty relief, the player must drop either a substituted ball or the original ball within the relief area. Any mistakes that are made in either of the previous two cases can be amended without penalty by redropping. However, failure to correct the mistake would result in playing from the wrong place and would incur the general penalty.

Before a golfer lifts their ball, the spot must be marked with either the placement of a ball-marker (i.e. tee or coin) or a golf club right behind or next to the ball at rest. Lifting a ball without marking it will incur a one-stroke penalty.

Players may clean a lifted golf ball anytime they are on a putting green or anytime it is needed to identify a ball, but only as much as needed to do so. Otherwise, cleaning a golf ball results in one penalty stroke.

A ball that is marked and lifted must be replaced on its original spot or an estimate close to the original spot. However, sometimes a replaced ball may not stay still. In this case, the player is permitted a second attempt to get it to stay and then must find the nearest spot where it will stay at rest as long as:

  • The spot isn’t nearer the hole.
  • It must stay in the same area of the golf course (i.e. general area, penalty area, putting green, etc.)

If a player is required to drop a ball into play when taking free relief or penalty relief, it must be dropped using the following parameters:

  • The player must drop the ball, not a caddie or coach or anyone else.
  • The player must let go of the ball from a location at knee height so that it falls straight down, without throwing, spinning or rolling it, and so that it doesn’t touch any part of their body or equipment before hitting the ground.
  • The ball must be dropped in the relief area but the player may stand inside or out of the relief area when dropping.

Any ball not dropped within these parameters must be redropped following the Rules at no penalty stroke. However, not fixing the mistake will result in the assessment of a penalty.

USGA Diagram 14.3b: Dropping from knee height.
USGA Diagram 14.3b: Dropping from knee height.

Establishing a relief area where a ball can be dropped is a multi-step process. The player determines their relief area by locating the nearest spot not affected by the condition or situation requiring relief, marks that spot with a golf tee or coin, then measures one or two club lengths from that spot (number of club lengths depends on the relief situation) creating a pie-shaped relief area where the ball is dropped.

The player must ensure the relief area is no closer to the hole. The following illustration provides further insight into what the relief area looks like and how to properly proceed with a drop.

 USGA Diagram 14.3c: Ball must be dropped in and come to rest in the relief area.
USGA Diagram 14.3c: Ball must be dropped in and come to rest in the relief area.

A player is given three opportunities to properly drop the same ball. If the ball fails to come to rest within the prescribed relief area after three drops, the player then must place the ball on the spot where the ball hit the ground on the third drop.

Section 6 – Free Relief (Rules 15-16)

*In any situation where a player takes free relief, the player is only entitled to one-club length in determining the size of the relief area.

Rule 15 – Relief from Loose Impediments and Movable Obstructions

Players may remove loose impediments (twigs, leaves, downed branches, etc.) without penalty anywhere on or off the course as long as the removal of the loose impediment doesn’t move the golf ball. If the golf ball moves as a result, the player incurs one penalty stroke, unless on the putting green or in the teeing area, and must replace the ball on its original spot. Otherwise, the player must make the stroke with the loose impediment in the way or declare the ball unplayable (see Rule 19).

Similar to loose impediments, movable obstructions (i.e. bunker rake or another player’s equipment), can be moved without penalty anywhere on the golf course. However, if the ball moves during this process there is no penalty and the player must replace the ball before their next stroke.

Rule 16 – Relief from Abnormal Course Conditions, Dangerous Animal Condition, Embedded Ball

A player is entitled to free relief from abnormal course conditions which include animal holes, ground under repair (GUR), immovable obstructions (i.e. cart path or sprinkler head) and temporary water. Relief is granted if the ball is in or touches any abnormal course condition, if the condition interferes with the player’s intended stance or swing or if the course condition interferes with the line of putt on a putting green.

The following illustrations offer ways to take relief from a cart path and ground under repair.

USGA Diagram 16.1a: When relief is allowed for abnormal course conditions.
USGA Diagram 16.1a: When relief is allowed for abnormal course conditions.
USGA Diagram 16.1b: Free relief from abnormal course condition in general area.
USGA Diagram 16.1b: Free relief from abnormal course condition in general area.

If relief is taken, the player must remain in the same area of the golf course. For example, if taking relief inside a bunker, the player must proceed under the Rules while remaining inside the bunker.

An embedded ball is one that is plugged into the surface of the ground as a result of the previous stroke. The ball doesn’t necessarily have to touch soil to be considered embedded. A player may take free relief from an embedded ball under the procedures for establishing the relief area and dropping a ball as reviewed above.

Section 7 – Penalty Relief (Rules 17-19)

*Unless otherwise noted, the player is entitled to two-club lengths in determining the size of the relief area.

Rule 17 – Penalty Areas

Penalty Areas are bodies of water or other areas defined by the golf course where a ball is often lost or unable to be played. For one penalty stroke, the player is granted specific relief options, depending on the type of penalty area, from which to play a ball from outside the penalty area.

Penalty areas are either red or yellow and are identified by the presence of red and yellow stakes and lines. The stakes are used to indicate the type of penalty area from a distance while the lines establish the boundary of the penalty area. The color difference will affect the relief options.

A ball is considered to be in a penalty area when any part of it lies on or touches the ground or anything else on the inside edge of the penalty area, marked by a red or yellow line or in the absence of a painted line, an imaginary straight line created between two red or yellow stakes.

A player has two relief options for a ball lying in a penalty area: play the ball as it lies without penalty or be assessed a penalty stroke and take penalty relief. If you can’t find the ball in the penalty area and it’s ‘known or virtually certain’ it came to rest inside the area, the player may proceed with penalty relief. The term ‘known or virtually certain’ means the player saw or has zero doubt as to where the ball came to rest.

However, if there is any doubt as to whether the ball came to rest inside of the penalty area, then the player must proceed as if the ball is lost (Rule 18). An example would be a player hitting a ball in the direction of a large tree in thick heavy grass next to a lake.

If the player didn’t see where the ball went and there exists a possibility that the ball bounced off the tree and is lost in the thick heavy grass and not in the lake, then the player must treat the ball as lost.

For a ball that comes to rest in a yellow penalty area, there are two relief options for the player, each costing the player one penalty stroke. The diagram provides a visual reference for the following two options.

  1. The player may take relief by playing from the spot where the previous shot was taken, known as stroke-and-distance relief.
  2. The player may take back-on-the-line relief by dropping a ball in a relief area on a line that goes straight back from the point the ball entered the penalty area, keeping that point between the relief area and the hole on the putting green.
USGA Diagram #1 17.1d: Relief for ball in yellow penalty area.
USGA Diagram #1 17.1d: Relief for ball in yellow penalty area.

For a ball that comes to rest in a red penalty area, also known as a lateral water hazard, the player has the above two options plus an additional option. The diagram provides a visual reference for this option.

  1. In taking lateral relief, the player establishes a reference point outside of the penalty area where the ball entered and then may use two club-lengths from that point to establish the relief area where a ball is dropped back into play. The relief area must not be closer to the hole than the point where the ball entered the penalty area.
USGA Diagram #2 17.1d: Relief for ball in red penalty area.
USGA Diagram #2 17.1d: Relief for ball in red penalty area.

Despite color, the main difference between the two penalty areas and why one (red) has three options while the other (yellow) has only two has to do with how the game is meant to be played. Yellow penalty areas must be navigated so players are not given an option to circumvent the obstacle.

The lateral placement of the red penalty areas suggests their placement is for errant shots and players should have additional options for playing from the area.

Rule 18 – Stroke-and-Distance Relief; Ball Lost or Out of Bounds; Provisional Ball

When a ball is lost outside a penalty area or comes to rest out of bounds the player’s natural progression of playing one ball from the teeing area to the putting green is broken. So the player must restart the process using the stroke-and-distance relief option at the cost of a one-stroke penalty.

A player may take stroke-and-distance relief at any time for a lost ball but once another ball is put into play, the original ball no longer counts and must not be played even if it’s found.

The player is allotted three minutes to search for a lost golf ball and if the ball isn’t found in that time limit, it’s deemed to be lost. A ball is considered out of bounds only when all of it is outside the boundary edge of the course.

USGA Diagram 18.2a: When ball is out of bounds.
USGA Diagram 18.2a: When ball is out of bounds.

If a player believes their most recent stroke made will result in a lost ball, they may opt to play a provisional ball under the stroke-and-distance penalty to save time.

A provisional ball may not be played for a ball believed to be lost in a penalty area and must proceed under the Rules for such a situation. If playing from the teeing area, a provisional ball would count as the player’s third shot.

The player must clearly announce their intention to play the provisional ball before putting one into play. Omitting this step will result in the provisional ball counting even if the original ball is found.

Golfers should continue to play their provisional ball until it is closer to the hole than the original ball is thought to be. If the provisional is played past that point, it becomes the ball in play even if the original ball is found.

Rule 19 – Unplayable Ball

This rule gives the golfer an option, which includes one penalty stroke, to take relief from a difficult situation anywhere on the golf course, except in a penalty area. Only the golfer is permitted to declare their ball unplayable.

Examples of an unplayable ball include a ball resting at the base of a tree with low hanging branches, a ball nestled next to a cactus or a ball lying among a tree’s craggily exposed roots.

The process for relief for an unplayable ball is similar to that of other relief scenarios but it is important to remember that one penalty stroke is added to the player’s score for moving their ball to a playable location.

Relief options include:

  1. Stroke-and-distance relief by playing from where the previous stroke was made.
  2. Back-on-the-line relief by dropping a ball based on a reference line keeping the spot of the unplayable ball between the relief area and the hole on the green.
  3. Lateral relief up to two club-lengths and no closer to the hole.
USGA Diagram 19.2: Relief options for ball unplayable in general area.

An unplayable ball may also be declared in a bunker using the above three relief options plus one additional option (#4 below). However, with option 2 and 3 above, the ball must remain inside the bunker.

  • For a total of two penalty strokes, the player may take back-on-the-line relief outside the bunker. The additional penalty stroke comes from removing the ball from the bunker to play the shot.

Sections 8 & 9 (Rules 20-24) and Definitions

The remaining two sections that include the five final rules are really only necessary for golfers to learn if they plan on playing in competitive tournaments.

The USGA and R&A understand that many words used in Rules of Golf can be confusing or commonly misinterpreted so the Rules include a ‘Definitions’ section to clearly stipulate and define the golf lexicon for better understanding and implementation of the Rules.

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