Five rules all golfers should know

Golf Care, 19th November 2014

The rules of golf are extensive and even expert officials have to refer back to the rulebook in certain circumstances. But there are fundamentals that all golfers should be aware of. As a player, it’s your responsibility to have a grasp of the basics.


There are situations in which golfers should know how to proceed under the rules, but misunderstandings can, and do, occur. Here we look at five common rules scenarios to dispel some myths and lay out the correct course of action.


Playing a provisional ball


If you strike a shot and you’re un-certain if it has remained in bounds, or if you’re likely to be able to find it, you should always hit a provisional ball in order to maintain pace of play. But it’s very important that you declare to your playing partners, or opponent, that this is what you’re doing. If you hit another ball without declaring it a “provisional” then that ball automatically becomes the ball in play and the original ball is deemed lost.


You can play the provisional ball up until the point where you think the original ball lies. So, if you duff a provisional ball off the tee, you can hit it again, and again, for as long as it takes to reach the spot you estimate the first ball to be in. As soon as the provisional ball is played from that spot or a spot closer to the hole, it becomes the ball in play and the original is deemed lost.


Out of bounds stakes


A common misconception is that out of bounds stakes can be removed if they affect swing or stance, in the same way stakes marking the edge of a hazard can be moved. This is not the case. Out of bounds stakes, (or anything defining the boundary of the course,) cannot be moved, bent or broken. If your ball comes to rest against an out of bounds post you should, firstly, count yourself lucky as it quite possibly stopped it leaving the course, secondly you must see if you can play any sort of shot and, if not, you must take a penalty drop.


Unplayable lie


If you reach your ball and find it in an unplayable spot you’re not simply able to drop under penalty at the nearest point where you can get a full shot. In fact you have three clear options.


1 – Return to where the previous shot was played and drop as close as possible to the spot it was struck from.

2 – Drop the ball behind the point where the ball was lying, keeping that point directly between the hole and the spot on which you drop. (You can go back as far as you want.)

3 – Drop within two club lengths of where the ball lay, no closer to the hole.


Ball moved accidentally at address


If a player addresses the ball then moves it accidentally before making a stroke, they will incur a one-stroke penalty and the ball must be replaced. So if you rest the club behind the ball in the rough and, by touching the grass you cause the ball to move, you receive a one-stroke penalty and have to put the ball back where it was.


But there is an exception, and this is a relatively new addition to the rules (as of Jan 1st 2012.) The exception states that, if it is known or virtually certain that the player did not cause the ball to move at address, there is no penalty and the ball should be played from its new position. So if you stand over a putt on the green and a strong gust of wind moves your ball before you take the putter head away, there’s no longer any penalty. You must play the ball from the new spot.


Yellow versus Red stakes


There’s always a bit of confusion over these.


Yellow stakes indicate a “Water Hazard.” This is any sea, lake, pond, river, ditch or other form of open water within the bounds of the course.


If your ball goes in one, your options are (under penalty of one stroke):

– Play a ball from the spot where the original ball was last played. Or,

– Drop a ball behind the water hazard on a line between the ball’s original point of entry into the hazard and the flag. There’s no limit to how far behind the water hazard you drop it.

Or, (with no penalty):

– Take your shoes and socks off, get in there and try to hack it out. Remember, you are in a hazard so you can’t touch the water with your club. (Or with your hand for that matter.)


Red stakes define a “Lateral Water Hazard.” This is a “Water Hazard” situated where it would be impossible, or deemed impractical by the committee, to take a drop behind it.


If you go in one of these, you have the options described above plus two others, (under penalty of one stroke):

– Drop a ball outside the hazard, no nearer the hole, within two club lengths of the point where the ball crossed the margin of the hazard – Or, drop at a point on the opposite margin of the hazard equidistant from the hole.


There are a few instances why water might be marked by both yellow and red stakes.

– A body of water can be defined as a “Water Hazard” from the back tees and as a “Lateral Water Hazard” from the forward tees.

– A section of a body of water may be defined as “Water Hazard” for play on one hole and as “Lateral Water Hazard” for play on another hole.

– One section of a body of water may be defined as “Water Hazard” and another section of the same body of water as “Lateral Water Hazard.”


It’s important for golfers to understand the rules but it’s difficult to memorise them in their entirety. For this reason, all golfers should carry a copy of the R&A’s pocket-sized Rules of Golf in their bag. 

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