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Rules of Golf

Rules Review: Does a ball actually have to be unplayable to declare it unplayable?

January 16, 2023
200381794-001

Joe McBride

There are times when it's obvious: Your ball gets stuck in a tree, is next to an out-of-bounds fence or rests against a giant rock (and Tiger Woods' gallery is not around to move it).

Those are clearly instances when declaring an unplayable ball makes sense. Rule 19 says you can take a stroke penalty and then you have three options for what to do next (and you can do them with the original ball or another). The first is a traditional stroke-and-distance option, replaying your previous shot. The second is to drop the original in a relief area that is based on a reference line going straight back from the hole through the spot of the original ball. (There's a little more to it than that, but for the sake of staying on topic, you can reference Rule 19.2b to get the rest.) The third is to take lateral relief within two club lengths of where the original ball lies. When you drop using this option, make sure the ball is not nearer the hole than the reference point. Again, there's a little more to this option, but we need to move on.

The point of this article is to talk about those times when declaring a ball unplayable seems like, well, it might be against the rules. For example, you hit a tee shot on a par 3 that is in play, but in a horrendous lie in a bunker that would force you to play backward just to get out. Clearly it would be better to re-tee, lie two and take your chances at making a hard-earned bogey instead of a snowman (that's an 8 for those of you new to carding an 8. Some of us are more familiar).

Back to the action on that par 3, are you allowed to declare a ball unplayable, even though it clearly is playable?

Drum roll, please … the answer is, absolutely.

Rule 19 says the player, and only the player, can say whether his or her ball is or isn't playable. The only restriction is that you can’t take unplayable ball relief if your ball is in a penalty area. Otherwise, you don't need to justify your decision to anyone, not even your teammate who thinks you're choking away the $5 you're up in a nassau.

Why is this important? Well this can be a little rules hack you stuff away in your golf bag and use it to your advantage a some point during a match with your friends. Say you have a downhill putt that you get a little aggressive with and it rolls off the green farther away from the hole than you were originally. You might consider declaring the ball “unplayable” and trying the putt over again (adding a stroke to your score, of course). The best part? Someone in your group will likely cry foul, and then you get the opportunity to get in their head by doing it anyway.

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