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Frequently Asked Rules Questions

To learn more about the Rules of Golf, watch the USGA Rules videos.

 Q.  September and October are two of the prettiest months of the year in New England and generally the golf courses are in the best shape of the season.  It’s also that time of year when the leaves change color and after their gorgeous display they all come tumbling down - this creates some interesting situations when a ball is believed to be buried in a pile of leaves - let’s take a look at what to do when your ball is buried in leaves in a bunker.

In stroke play, a player thinks that his yellow ball is in a bunker, which is partly covered with leaves.

Question 1:

In searching for his ball may the player probe the leaves with ...

a) ... his hands?

b) ... His club?

c) ... a rake?

Question 2:

After finding a ball in the leaves in the bunker, if the player cannot identify it as his, may he mark its position and lift it?

Question 3:

Having found his yellow ball surrounded by leaves in a bunker may the player touch those leaves ...

a)    ... with his club while preparing to make his stroke?

b)    ... in taking a practice swing?

c)    ... on the back swing of his stroke?

Answer 1:

a), b) and c) Yes. Rule 12-1.

Part of Rule 12-1b states;

In a hazard, if the player's ball is believed to be covered by loose impediments to the extent that he cannot find or identify it, he may, without penalty, touch or move loose impediments in order to find or identify the ball.

If the ball is found or identified as his, the player must replace the loose impediments. If the ball is moved during the touching or moving of loose impediments while searching for or identifying the ball, Rule 18-2a applies; if the ball is moved during the replacement of the loose impediments, there is no penalty and the ball must be replaced.

If the ball was entirely covered by loose impediments, the player must re-cover the ball but is permitted to leave a small part of the ball visible.

Answer 2:

Yes, providing he announces that he intends to mark and lift his ball to a fellow-competitor and give them an opportunity to witness the lifting and replacement. Rule 12-2.

Answer 3:

a), b) and c) No. Rule 13-4c.

Note: Rule 13-4c states that before making a stroke at a ball that is in a hazard the player must not touch or move a loose impediment lying in or touching the hazard. A stroke only commences with the forward movement of the club  made with the intention of striking at and moving the ball.

Q.  A player consistently places his ball-marker approximately two inches behind the ball on the green. He says that he does so to ensure that he does not accidentally move the ball. Does such a procedure comply with the Rules?

A.  No. A player who places a ball-marker two inches behind his ball cannot be considered to have marked the position of the ball with sufficient accuracy. Accordingly, each time he does so, the player incurs a penalty of one stroke, as provided in Rule 20-1, and must place the ball as near as possible to the spot from which it was lifted -- Rule 20-3c.

The player's action was unnecessary because Rule 20-1 states that no penalty is incurred if a ball is accidentally moved in the process of marking or lifting it under a Rule.   Decision 20-1/20.

Q.  Rules Corner - Larry was having a particularly bad start on hole number 7 last weekend. After a beautiful practice swing he stepped up to the ball on the tee and made a stroke at the ball and caught nothing but air. While this is a good term if shooting hoops, it is a whiff when playing golf. Some what embarrassed, he again addressed the ball but accidentally knocked it off the tee. He lifted it back on the tee and said, well I guess this means I am now lying one (1), hitting two (2). Was Larry correct? What is the correct answer and why?

A.  Larry was incorrect.  He actually lay two (2) and was hitting three (3).  When Larry made a stroke at the ball, it was a stroke and counted as a stroke, even though he whiffed the ball. At that point the ball is deemed to be in play. Rule 11-3 regarding a ball falling off the tee no longer applies. When the ball moves after it is addressed, you incur a penalty stroke and must replace the ball as per (Rule 18-2b). Larry is lying two (2) hitting three (3). Count one stroke for his whiff and one penalty stroke for moving his ball while it was in play and it must be replaced (which he did!)

Q.   At the Players' Championship last weekend at the TPC of Sawgrass, the team of PGA Tour Rules officials narrowly avoided bringing the Rules of Golf into disrepute late on Saturday evening, when they correctly reversed their earlier, perplexing ruling that had imposed a two stroke penalty on Justin Rose. It seems that after Justin had addressed his ball on the last hole of his third round, he saw it oscillate, or move, and called over his fellow competitor, Sergio Garcia, to explain what had happened, but that in his view the ball had not moved from its spot. Apparently they then both watched a replay of the incident on a nearby video screen and concluded that there had been no breach. There is a short video clip of Rose addressing the ball at this link. This clip supports Rose’s contention that from where he was standing over the ball, it did not move from its spot. However, after more than 30 minutes reviewing the incident on multiple broadcast feeds in three different trucks, including one feed where the ball was magnified x 50, the officials came to the conclusion that the ball had indeed moved, and they imposed a penalty of one stroke on Rose, under Rule 18-2b, which increased to a penalty of two strokes, because he had not replaced the ball at the spot where it was before it was deemed to have moved (Rule 20-7c).  Was this correct?

A.  What is interesting is that prior to this ruling being made, none of the officials realized that Decision 18/4  (new as of January 1, 2014) was directly relevant to the incident. This new Decision provides that, where enhanced technological evidence (e.g. HDTV, digital recording or online visual media, etc.) shows that a ball has left its position and come to rest in another location, the ball will not be deemed to have moved if that movement was not reasonably discernible to the naked eye at the time. This was obviously the case and after USGA and R&A experts got involved in the Ruling, it was agreed that the penalty had been wrongly imposed and it was rescinded. A detailed explanation from the PGA Tour, with the full wording of Decision 18/4, can be read at this link.

Q.  You start the round with 5 golf balls in your bag because you haven't lost a golf ball in over 20 years - until today when on two separate holes you knock two golf balls off the tee deep into the woods and can't find them.  You are now down to one golf ball and you come to a hole with a 150 yard carry over water, which is not normally a difficult shot for you - until today when you top your last golf ball into the middle of the pond! Now what do you do?  Are you allowed to borrow a golf ball from a fellow-competitor?

A.  As long as you are not playing under the “one ball condition”, it is perfectly OK to borrow a golf ball or two from a fellow-competitor or an opponent.  The prohibition against borrowing equipment from another player only pertains to golf clubs and is covered under Rule 4-4.  Anything else, a tee, towel, balls, umbrella, glove, etc. can be borrowed without penalty.  And, even if you were playing under the “one ball condition”, you would be allowed to borrow a golf ball from a fellow-competitor as long as it was the same brand and model as the ball you started your round with.

Q.  Often times, the term “nearest point of relief” is bantered about and many times people have no idea what you’re talking about.  Do you know what the nearest point of relief is?

A.  Let’s find out a little bit more about the “nearest point of relief” and how and what it’s used for in the Rules of Golf.  As usual, a good starting point is the definition.

The definition states in part that “the nearest point of relief is the reference point for taking relief without penalty from interference by an immovable obstruction (Rule 24-2), an abnormal ground condition (Rule 25-1) or a wrong putting green (Rule 25-3).

That being said, the first thing to notice is that the nearest point of relief is used only when taking relief without penalty; cart pats, sprinkler heads, casual water, etc…  It is not used in relief from a water hazard, an unplayable lie or any other Rule where a penalty is involved.

The definition goes on to say that the nearest point of relief is “the point on the course nearest to where the ball lies: (i) that is not nearer the hole, and (ii) where, if the ball were so positioned, no interference by the condition from which relief is sought would exist for the stroke the player would have made from the original position if the condition were not there”.

Additionally, for clarification, the definition includes a note that is a best practice that says “In order to determine the nearest point of relief accurately, the player should use the club with which he would have made his next stroke (if the condition were not there) to simulate the address position, direction of play and swing for such a stroke”.

That sounds complicated so let’s break it down.

First, the nearest point of relief is going to be a point that is closest to where the ball originally lies. There may be many points near to where the ball lies, some good and some bad, but the nearest point of relief is going to be the closest. Remember, it’s the nearest point of relief and not the “nicest point of relief”.

Secondly, the nearest point of relief can be no nearer the hole.

Finally, it is the spot on the course nearest to where the ball lies that if you had theoretically placed it, you would no longer have interference from that cart path, sprinkler head or casual water using the stroke you would have made in the first place. Interference includes lie of ball, stance, area of intended stance or swing and additionally, only when your ball lies on the putting green, intervention on your line of putt.

For example, if you were kneeling on the ground to hit a right handed punch shot with a 4-iron from under a tree but your knee was on a sprinkler head, you would mostly likely be entitled to relief. You would then find the spot on the course nearest to where the ball lie, no nearer the hole, that if the ball were so positioned you would no longer have interference from that sprinkler head for a right handed punch shot with a 4-iron while kneeling on the ground.

Generally, there is only one spot which is the nearest point of relief. Also, the nearest point of relief may be some distance away. Don’t get fooled into thinking it is only one or two club-lengths away. If taking relief from a very large puddle of casual water, the nearest point of relief may be 30 or more yards away.

Depending on the location of the ball (through the green, on a putting green, in a bunker or on the teeing ground) and the applicable Rule (24-2, 25-1 or 25-3) you would either drop the ball within one club-length of that spot (through the green or in a hazard) or place the ball at that spot (when the ball lies on the putting green).

Remember, knowing and following the Rules of Golf can assist you in avoiding unnecessary penalties and help you to enjoy this great game of golf even more.

Q: If I am going to drop a ball under a Rule, but the cart path is in the way, do I have to drop it on the cart path or can I just drop it on the other side of the cart path?

A: That’s a very good question and it comes up all of the time. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

In all three of these examples, you go ahead and drop the ball on the cart path. As long as it satisfies the dropping requirement of each Rule; within two club-lengths, on a line or within one club-length of the appropriate reference point, the drop is a legal one.

Now, if the ball comes to rest on the cart path after making the drop, go ahead and take free relief from the cart path (Rule 24-2b). In 99% of all cases, it must be done in these two steps.  The reason for this double drop is that you are actually taking relief for 2 separate situations -the first situation using the examples above is taking relief for the lateral water hazard, the unplayable lie, or casual water.  Once you satisfy the requirements for proper relief for any of those situations and your ball now has interference from the cart path, you can then take relief from this new situation and you have a correct reference point for where to take relief.  The best way to explain it is to use the water hazard example above.  We all know that we get two club lengths relief from the spot where the ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard.  If our two club-lengths puts us on the cart path, but we don’t want to drop it on the cart path, then how do we know exactly where to drop it on the other side of the path?  We don’t because we have nothing to help define an area where we can drop on the other side of the path.  We must drop on the path first.  Once the ball comes to rest, we now have a reference point so that we can properly take relief from the cart path.  More than likely, you will get to take relief on the other side of the path, but depending on where the ball ends up on the path, you may have to take relief on the hazard side, if the nearest point of relief is on that side that is not in the hazard.  Remember, use the index or the table of contents to find the correct Rule that applies to the situation and follow the Rules of Golf to help yourself to enjoy the game of golf.

Q: Are range finders or other distance measuring devices legal?

A: The Committee may make a local rule allowing players to use devices that measure or gauge distance only. In the absence of this local rule, distance-measuring devices are prohibited. Devices that measure wind, slope, etc., are never permitted—even if these functions are turned off.  Distance measuring devices are permitted in VGA events - their use is sanctioned on the VGA Hard Card.

Q.  I downloaded a GPS App to my smart phone - can I use that app if the Local Rule allowing the use of distance measuring devices is in effect?

A.  Yes and no - more than likely no!   Click the link in the menu bar on the right for clarification on Distance Measuring Devices.

Cell phones may be used to answer calls, text or email or access the Internet, provided:

The VGA Hard Card prohibits use of cell phones during all of its events unless specifically allowed by the Committee (this would be listed on the Local Rules or Notice to Competitors) or in the case of an emergency.

Q: May I have the flagstick attended if my ball lies off the putting green?

A: Yes. Before making a stroke from anywhere on the course, you may have the flagstick attended, removed or held up to indicate the position of the hole.  However, when a flagstick is attended, removed or held up the player’s ball must not strike the attendant or flagstick no matter where the shot is played from.

Q: Why are some water hazards defined with yellow stakes and others with red stakes?

A: Under the Rules of Golf, water hazards are defined by yellow stakes and lines, and lateral water hazards are defined by red stakes and lines. Committees mark certain water hazards as lateral water hazards (using red stakes and lines) due to the layout and position of the hazard relative to the course and the hole on which it is serving as an obstacle.

Q: Do the relief options differ depending on the type of water hazard?

A: Yes. Options “a” and “b” are acceptable options for both water hazards and lateral water hazards.  Option “c” is only available when taking relief from a lateral water hazard (red stakes and lines). Below are the options for relief from a water or lateral water hazard under Rule 26-1:
a):  Play a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played; or

b):  Drop a ball behind the water hazard, keeping the point at which the original ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped, with no limit to how far behind the water hazard the ball may be dropped; or

c):  As additional options available only if the ball last crossed the margin of a lateral water hazard, drop a ball outside the water hazard within two club-lengths of and not nearer the hole than (i) the point where the original ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard or (ii) a point on the opposite margin of the water hazard equidistant from the hole.

Q: Am I entitled to free relief from exposed tree roots?

A:  Exposed tree roots are not abnormal and free relief is not available under Rule 25-1.  However, a new Decision in 2014 (33-8/8) gives a Committee the authorization to make a Local Rule providing relief under Rule 25-1 for interference from exposed tree roots when a ball lies on a closely- mown area.  The Committee may restrict relief to interference for the lie of the ball and area of intended swing.

Q: Do I get free relief from a sprinkler head on the fringe of the putting green if it’s situated directly between my ball and the hole?

A: The answer depends on whether or not the committee has adopted the “Immovable Obstructions Close to the Putting Green” local rule. In the absence of this local rule, you are not entitled to relief if an immovable obstruction (in this case, the sprinkler) interferes on your line of play. If the local rule has been adopted, you are entitled to relief—assuming the sprinkler is within two club lengths of the putting green and the ball is within two club lengths of the sprinkler.

In general, this local rule should only be adopted at courses where the conditions around the putting greens are such that these obstructions interfere with the proper playing of the game.

Q: Can I share golf balls and/or clubs with my opponent or fellow competitor?

A: You may share golf balls and other forms of equipment such as towels, gloves, tees, etc. However, you may not share clubs with your opponent or fellow competitor.

Q: After searching for my tee shot for three minutes, can I go back to the tee to play a provisional ball?

A: No. After having gone forward to search for your ball, you may not return to (in this example) the tee to play a “provisional ball.” If you put another ball into play at the spot from which your previous stroke was made, you are deemed to have proceeded under stroke and distance. That ball becomes your ball in play and the original is lost.

Q: What is the penalty if I play out of turn in stroke play?

 A: As long as competitors aren’t playing out of turn to give one of them an advantage, there is no penalty for playing out of turn in stroke. In some cases, it is actually recommended and can greatly speed up play (e.g., “ready golf,” tapping in on the putting green, etc.).

Q: Should rakes be left inside or outside of the bunker?

A: The USGA recommends that rakes be left outside bunkers in areas where they are least likely to affect the movement of the ball; however, it is ultimately a matter for the committee to decide.

Misused Terms/Phrases

Many familiar golf terms do not appear in The Rules of Golf book. The following list includes some of the more common ones.






Incorrect Term/Phrase

  Correct Term/Phrase



Pin placement

Hole Location

Sand Trap


Tee box  

Teeing ground

Medal play

Stroke play


Group of four players