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Rules Review

Rules of Golf Review: My ball is in a penalty area, so what are my options for taking a drop?

November 23, 2023

Hideki Matsuyama looks to take a drop after putting his second shot into the water during first round of the 2023 Rocket Mortgage Classic.

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Whoops, your ball is in a penalty area. Tough break. Although you probably still refer to it as a water hazard, it's important to know that the official name change to "penalty area" back in 2019 should give you a clue that the options for your next stroke have changed a bit.

Rule 17 in the Rules of Golf covers what you can and can't do. First, know that you can always attempt to play your shot in a penalty area. And it's no longer a penalty if you ground your club before you do. So feel free to take a few practice swings to see if you have a reasonable chance of escaping this lie.

It's also worth mentioning that your ball is in a penalty area when any part of it lies on or touches the ground or anything else (such as any natural or artificial object) inside the edge of the penalty area; or is above the edge or any other part of the penalty area.

Now that those disclaimers are out of the way, let's move on to what typically happens when you splash one. You're going to have to take a penalty stroke and play on in one of these ways:

If the penalty area is either marked red or yellow (stakes, lines, etc.), you can replay from where you just hit you previous shot or—take a deep breath—you can drop the original ball or another ball outside the penalty area, keeping the estimated point where the original ball last crossed the edge of the penalty area between the hole and the spot where the ball is dropped, with no limit as to how far back you drop. That spot, by the way, can be within a one clublength of the relief area on either side of that line, but can't be closer to the hole than where the original ball crossed the penalty-area boundary. You also can't drop within the penalty area and wherever it lands, it has to stay in the same area of the course when it stops moving. Don't forget that drops are done from knee height now, too.

That was a lot to digest, so here's a USGA diagram (below) that helps show where you can drop.

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You have another choice for when your ball is in a red penalty area. You might recall having a lateral-relief option from the old rules. This still applies, but don't do it if your ball lands in a yellow penalty area. Here's how the lateral option works:

You can drop the original or another ball in a relief zone (Rule 14.3) that is within two clublengths of where it last crossed the margin of the penalty area. Just like the other option, the ball can't be nearer the hole after the drop or come to rest in the penalty area. It also has to stay in the area of the course where it first touches the ground. Again, the USGA offers a diagram (below) for help.

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Remember, it's bad enough you just dunked your ball. Don't compound the problem by making the wrong choice about how to proceed. The game's hard enough.