Rules and Etiquette Q&A

If you count all the rules, definitions and decisions that fall under the USGA's official Rules of Golf, you end up with several hundred. Is it possible for any one person to keep all that info straight? Probably not, unless you're Genger Fahleson, Director of Rules Education for the USGA. So we asked Genger to answer some of your most pressing rules and etiquette questions. If you have a query of your own, please send it to

Q: After hitting my first putt during a stroke-play tournament, I noticed that the lip of the cup was torn. I fixed the damage with a divot tool and proceeded to hole out. My fellow competitor told me that I had just incurred a two-stroke penalty. Was he correct?
A: As with many rules, the answer depends on several factors. If the impact of a ball caused the damage, you would have been allowed to repair it without penalty (Rule 16-1, The Putting Green). But things get trickier if the tear was caused by another object, such as a spike mark or the flagstick. If the damage was not a ball mark and did not affect the dimensions or the roundness of the hole, you'd incur a two-stroke penalty for repairing it (Decision 16-1a/6, Damaged Hole; Procedure for Player). But if the damage did not alter the dimensions or roundness of the hole, you should have asked a member of the tournament committee to repair it. If a committee member wasn't readily available, you would have been entitled to repair the hole without penalty. Keep in mind that once everyone in your group has holed out, you may -- and indeed should -- repair the damage.

Q: If your ball lies on the fringe of the green, may you a repair a ball mark on the putting surface?
A: Yes. Rule 16-1c states that players may repair damage or ball marks whether or not the player's ball lies on the green.

Q: My ball came to rest inside the yellow stakes of a hazard on the bank of a creek and was surrounded by but not resting against, a group of rocks. Could I have removed the rocks without penalty before I hit my shot?
A: When your ball is in a water hazard, lateral water hazard or bunker, you are not allowed to move or remove any loose impediments, including rocks (Rule 13-4 Ball in Hazard). If you do you incur a two-stroke penalty in stroke play or a loss of hole in match play. You can play the shot from the rocky area or accept a one-stroke penalty and either drop behind the hazard or go back to where your last stroke was made (Rule 26-1).

Q: During play, my partner's ball ended up in a hazard, but it was playable. Before he hit his shot he took three practice swings. Each time his clubhead brushed the grass inside the hazard line. Is there a penalty for this?
A: The "Note" under Rule 13-4 states that when a player's ball is in a hazard, it's okay for her or his club to touch grass, brush or other natural growth, as long as she or he doesn't ground the club (let it rest on the ground).

Q: A member of our rules committee told me that if a player loses her balance and falls into a bunker, she incurs a two-stroke penalty. Say it isn't so!
A: Your rules committee is in trouble of they are dispensing misinformation such as this. The only pain a player should experience if she falls into a bunker is a bruised ego. There is no penalty under the Rules of Golf. If you need a reference, see Exception 1 under Rule 13-4.

Q: I hit a long shot into a bunker. Both my husband and I saw the ball go into sand about a foot under the lip, but when I got there, it was gone. I dug around in the sand until I found my ball, then I dropped it in the bunker and continued to play without a penalty. Was this the proper procedure?
A: You're allowed to probe and dig for a ball you believed to be covered by sand in a bunker without penalty (Rule 12-1). But once you find the ball, the rule requires you to replace it where you found it so that only part of the ball is visible. Because you dropped the ball instead of re-covering it with sand, you incurred a penalty of loss of hole in match play or two penalty strokes in stroke play (Dec. 20-6/1).

Q: Is there a rule about how you should place the rake in the bunker after you've raked the sand? I've heard that the tip of the handle should be on the edge of the bunker and the rake's end should be in the sand.
A: There's no rule that dictates how rakes should be placed either in or around a bunker, but the USGA does recommend that rakes be placed outside the bunker, where they are least likely to affect play (Misc./2, Whether Rakes Should Be Placed In or Outside the Bunkers).

Q: I was playing in the club championship. We were looking for my ball in the rough when I accidentally ran over it with my golf cart and the ball became embedded. Is this a penalty or is it a free drop?
A: If you were the one driving the cart as it rolled over the ball, you caused the ball to move vertically down into the ground and therefore incurred a penalty of one stroke (Rule 18-2a). Because the original lie had been altered but you knew where it was, you should have placed the ball in the nearest, most similar lie within one club length of the original lie, but not nearer the hole (see Decision 18-2a/21.3). If you were not the driver of the cart, then you should have replaced the ball in the nearest lie without penalty.

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