Rules of Golf

Rules of Golf Review: Can I move a stone if it improves my lie?

July 06, 2023

Richard Heathcote

Among the good things that came out the USGA and R&A’s modernization of the Rules of Golf in 2019 were some changes borne out of common sense that didn't impact the unique challenges of the game. Among those was allowing golfers to remove loose impediments in a bunker (Rules 12.2a and 12.2b). It was a good call for safety reasons and logic. After all, the challenge in a bunker is supposed to be navigating sand—not twigs, leaves, stones, etc.

But what happens when removing the impediment improves conditions affecting the stroke? Rule 8.1a says it's a two-stroke penalty or loss of hole in match play if your actions prior to a stroke improve the conditions affecting the shot.

So can you remove a loose impediment in a bunker if it gives you an advantage for your next shot?

The answer is, it depends on how you remove the impediment. Rule 12.2a/1 says there is no penalty if sand is moved when removing a loose impediment, even if it improves the conditions, so long as the action taken to remove the stone, branch, etc. was reasonable. What does reasonable mean? An example might be if the stick was right behind your ball and you picked it straight up to remove it. That's reasonable.

What isn't reasonable would be dragging the stick away in a manner that removes a clump of sand behind your ball, thus making your next shot easier.

And if you do attempt to remove a loose impediment, make sure it's a loose impediment. Larger granules of sand might be mistaken for a small pebble. This came into play at the 2019 Northern Trust. Rory McIlroy was nearly penalized two strokes for attempting to remove what he thought was a loose impediment, but it turned out to be a clump of sand.

After some deliberation, the penalty was rescinded as McIlroy argued he did not intend to touch the sand and improve his lie, only to remove what he thought was a stone.

Long story short: Be careful when you do remove stones and other loose impediments in bunkers, but know you’re within your rights to do so if you do it in a reasonable manner.