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Rules of Golf

Rules of Golf Review: I know I saw his golf ball move when he removed that pine straw. Why wasn't he penalized?

April 17, 2024
Masters 2022

Scottie Scheffler delicately looks to see if there are any loose impediments near his ball on the third hole during the final round of his 2022 Masters win.

JD Cuban

One of the classic features of Augusta National, and hundreds of other courses across the Southeastern United States, is pine straw. Those long thing pine needles cover large swaths of ground bordering fairways and often come into play on wayward shots.

If you want to know how to hit off of this surface, Eric Alpenfels, director of instruction at the Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort, put together this handy video. If you want to know how to deal with pine straw—and loose impediments in general—in terms of removing them and playing your next shot without penalty, read on.

In a moment we'll address why you might have seen a ball move on a PGA Tour telecast as a result of someone moving loose impediments, and that golfer was NOT penalized. Before we do that, let's cover a quick refresher on the do's and dont's of these natural objects.

If your ball is near pine straw, pebbles, leaves, grass blades, twigs—any natural objects that are not fixed or growing, solidly embedded in the ground or sticking to the ball—you're allowed to move them anywhere on the golf course. Yep, that includes penalty areas and bunkers. Some of this, like removing stones from bunkers or water hazards, etc., is a departure from the former Rules of Golf, so that might surprise you.

There are two exceptions to legally removing loose impediments:

1. Before replacing a ball that was lifted or moved from anywhere except the putting green, you cannot deliberately remove a loose impediment that, if moved before the ball was lifted or moved, would have likely caused the ball to move. The penalty for doing so is one stroke, but the loose impediment does not need to be replaced.

2. When a ball is in motion, you can't remove a loose impediment that might affect where the ball comes to rest. This is true even if the action didn't actually affect where the ball stopped.

Getting back to conditions at tournaments like last week's Masters, or other pro events, you might see a player carefully investigating his lie in pine straw—crouching down, looking sideways and underneath the golf ball—trying to ascertain if he can slide a needle or two away from the ball without moving it. This is where confusion might set in on your end.

You might see said player remove some pine straw, even some needles that are a few inches away, and the ball might appear to move. You'd think that's a penalty. And it might be. But the question you have to ask is, did the ball at rest leave its original spot and come to rest on any other spot? Furthermore, can that movement be seen by the naked eye or only when a high-resolution TV camera zooms in and catches it happening?

If you recall in March at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Wyndham Clark's ball appeared to move as he soled his club behind it on the 18th hole of the third round. Turns out, Clark did nothing wrong, the ball returned to its original spot. However, this is a classic example of how players can find themselves mired in a social-media controversy for doing something that merely "appears" to be inappropriate. At the Masters, Xander Schauffele even spoke to the fact that he was nervous in this very kind of situation—his ball being in the pine straw during Saturday's third round—given how social-media rules "experts" are watching.

"On 15, that was a little bit more of a doctored situation for me," Schauffele said. "I had to take two twigs out from the ball, and everyone was staring at me and the cameras were there. I was feeling pretty nervous. Probably the most nervous I've been to be honest."

The lesson is to be careful when you're playing with "pick-up sticks" or any other loose impediments. Should you mess up and cause your ball to move as a result of moving a twig, leaf, etc., replace the ball on its original spot (or estimate if you're not sure) and take a one-stroke penalty.

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