An unplayable lie – three words no golfer in a competitive round wants to hear. Yet, you see PGA Tour Professionals have to take them almost every week on tour.
So, what is an unplayable lie in golf?
An unplayable lie is a penalty golfers take in the event that they are unable to play the ball as it lies, which is the first rule listed in the official Rules of Golf. With unplayable lies, there are three common relief options that each cost one penalty stroke.
Unplayable lies require that the ball is identified as that belonging to the player. If the player is unable to identify the ball or the ball is lost, they’ll need to replay the ball under the lost ball rule, which requires them to go back to where they had originally played from and hit again with a penalty stroke.
What Is an Unplayable Lie in Golf?
Unlike other penalties like hitting a ball into a penalty area or out of bounds, an unplayable lie can occur anywhere on the course. A player generally finds the golf ball in a place where a swing cannot be performed, resulting in an unplayable lie being the only option for the player to complete the hole.
An example of a circumstance that would necessitate an unplayable lie would be if a ball is hit into a tree and becomes stuck in the tree instead of falling down back to the ground. It isn’t exactly feasible to climb into a tree and swing a golf club.
In this example, the first step is to identify the golf ball. If the ball is stuck in the tree and nobody can confirm that it’s the same ball the player hit, they will have to follow the guidelines for a lost ball instead of an unplayable lie.
Once the ball is identified, the player is then able to remove the ball from its unplayable position. The player then is permitted to drop the ball back into play within a club length of the nearest point of relief.
The point of relief is defined similarly to how a player would drop after hitting the ball into ground under repair or on a cart path. The ball cannot advance closer to the hole and the player must drop the ball within two club-lengths of this nearest point of relief.
Dropping the ball back into play has changed recently – the ball can now be dropped from the player’s knee instead of waist. Generally, players will use their driver to measure the club lengths so that they can maximize the amount of space that they’re able to move the golf ball within the rules.
Plenty of other circumstances can warrant an unplayable lie. Hitting the ball into different shrubs, cacti, or other plants on the course that are not marked as ground under repair would necessitate an unplayable lie if the player isn’t able to hit the golf ball from inside the plant.
Flower beds that are not marked as ground under repair can also create a need for an unplayable lie. A maintenance shed or a permanent structure that is in the way of the player would also require the player to take relief under the unplayable lie rule.
This differs from, say, the grandstands at a PGA Tour event, which are movable because they’re only in play for the purpose of the tournament instead of being a permanent structure on the course.
Unplayable Lie Rule
Per the USGA, the following consists of Rule 19 – Unplayable Ball:
“If you are in a situation where you don’t want to or don’t think you can play your ball, you always have the option of taking relief under the unplayable ball Rule. The player is the only person who can decide that their ball is unplayable, and this can be done anywhere on the golf course except when your ball lies in a penalty area. If your ball is in a penalty area, your only relief option is to take relief under the penalty area Rule.
When you decide that your ball is unplayable, you have three relief options, all for one penalty stroke. Your first option is to go back to the spot of your previous stroke and play again (stroke and distance relief).
Your second option is to go back as far as you’d like and drop on the line from the hole through the spot where the ball lies (back-on-the-line relief). Your third option is to drop anywhere within two club lengths of where your ball lies, no closer to the hole (lateral relief).
If your ball lies in a bunker, you must remain inside the bunker under options two and three. You also have the fourth option for an extra penalty stroke (two penalty strokes total) which allows you to go back on the line and drop your ball outside the bunker.”
Unplayable Lie in a Bunker
Players who find themselves within a bunker with an unplayable lie have to keep the ball within the bunker, even if they can take the ball outside the bunker and keep it within two club-lengths. They also have an option to take the ball back on line from the hole and move it outside of the bunker, but this option requires the player to take two strokes as a penalty instead of just one.
Unplayable Lie in Penalty Area
Players who find an unplayable lie in a penalty area must either play the ball as it lies or take relief from the penalty area under the rules applicable to hitting a ball within the penalty area. There is no option to use lateral relief within a penalty area like there is when the ball is in typical play.
Unplayable Lie Drop on Cart Path
Players who find their ball on a cart path do not need to take a penalty in order to remove the ball from the cart path. Players are entitled to a free drop to take relief from a cart path within one club-length of the nearest point of relief.
This rule is only applicable if the cart path is, indeed, a cart path. Pedestrian paths and other places where carts drive do not apply under this free relief rule. In this case, the player would proceed under the unplayable lie rule.
Unplayable Lie vs Lost Ball
An unplayable lie can only be used if the player is able to locate and identify the golf ball as their own. Players who are able to identify the ball are able to use lateral relief within the unplayable lie rule.
The advantage to being able to take lateral relief is that the player doesn’t have to take the ball all the way back to where it was previously played, allowing the player to not have to replay the shot that led to the unplayable lie.
A player that hits a tee shot into a tree can identify the ball and then hit their third shot from a club length within where the tree is located. If the ball is lost in the tree and is unable to be identified, the player has to go back to the tee and hit their third shot from there instead of next to the tree.
With the lost ball example, a player hits their third shot back into play off the tee, then can hit the green and two-putt on a par 4 to make a double bogey. If the player can hit their third shot from next to the tree, they can put it on the green and two-putt for bogey, saving a shot on their score.
Unplayable Lie vs Provisional Ball
A provisional ball is played when a player hits a shot that they anticipate may have gone out of bounds or will end up being a lost ball. The player is allowed to hit a second shot from the same place as the first, known as a provisional. The provisional is able to be played down the hole until it becomes closer to the hole than the original shot.
Upon hitting the provisional beyond the location where the original ball is, the player then must make a determination on the original ball. If the ball is in play, they can then play the original ball and pick up the provisional when they reach it. If not, they are able to play the provisional after adding a one-stroke penalty.
An unplayable lie does not require the use of a provisional ball. However, a player who hits a ball into a tree could benefit from using a provisional ball if they feel that they might be unable to identify the ball.
This would save the player a trip back to wherever their initial shot was taken, and there is no penalty for putting a provisional ball into play unless it is determined that you need to play the ball after the initial ball is proclaimed to be lost.