Rules and Etiquette Q&A

July 07, 2010

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.

Q: My ball got plugged in the wet rough. I thought I could pick it up, clean it and drop it, but my partner said that this is only permitted in the fairway. Is that true?

A: Rule 25-2 (Embedded Ball) allows relief only if the ball is embedded in a "closely mown area of fairway height or less." But the USGA suggests that the Local Rule in Appendix I, Part B, 4a (Relief for Embedded Ball) be used. It provides relief without penalty for a ball embedded in its own pitch mark "through the green," which includes both the fairway and the rough. So ask if this Local Rule is in effect at your course.

Q: A player addressed the ball, started her swing and the ball moved before she hit it. Should she have been penalized?

A: Absolutely. If the ball moved after she addressed it, she incurred a one-stroke penalty (Rule 18-2b, Ball Moving After Address), whether she continued the swing or not. However, if the player had stopped her swing before hitting the ball, she should have put it back in its original position. Failing to replace the ball, in this case would have added the general penalty (a total of two penalty strokes) to her score (Rule 18, Penalty for Breach).


Q: After torrential downpours at our course, many of the bunkers were filled with water. I hit my ball into one and couldn't even find it. What should I have done?

A: If you're positive that the ball is lost in casual water that fills a bunker, you have three options (Decision 25-1b/8, Players Options When Bunker Completely Covered by Casual Water). Without penalty, you can drop a ball on the nearest, driest area in the bunker, no closer to the hole. Or, if there isn't a dry area in the bunker take a penalty stroke and drop a ball behind the bunker, keeping the point where the first ball last crossed the outermost limit of the casual water between the hole and the spot on which you drop your new ball. Or you can add a penalty stroke and play another ball near the spot where your original ball was played.

Q: Is it ever okay to reposition the markers on a tee box if they don't align in the direction you should be hitting?

A: No, it is never permissible to move the tee markers before starting play of the hole (see Decision 11-2/2). The penalty depends on why the markers were moved. If the player realigned the markers, she is disqualified. If the markers were moved to improve the stance, lie or area of intended swing, the penalty is loss of hole in match play or two strokes in stroke play. If a marker is moved accidentally (for instance, if a player stumbles over it), there is no penalty and the player must replace the marker.

Q: Does mentioning to a fellow-competitor that she has teed up the ball outside the teeing ground, or that she may be about to play, constitute a breach of Rule 8 (i.e., giving advice)?

A: Information on the rules is not considered advice (see Definition of "Advice"). Preventing another player from breaching a rule is absolutely the right thing to do.

Q: During the finals of our club championship, my opponent's husband followed us the entire round. On the 16th hole, he parked his cart next to hers, got out and walked off the yardage for her approach shot, then gave her the information. She won the match on that hole. She is the better golfer and I was just happy to be a finalist, but isn't it illegal to give or receive advice during a tournament?

A: This is a sticky issue. If your opponent's husband was acting as a caddie, it was okay for him to provide yardages (or any advice). But it sounds like he was a spectator, not a caddie (see the Definition of "Caddie"), and in that case, it's against the rules (see Rule 8-1b). If you thought there was a breach of the rules, you should have made a claim before you and your opponent left the putting green on the 16th hole, and then brought the claim to the committee in charge of the competition (see Rule 2-5). The committee would have considered the claim and determined whether the husband was violating the rules. However, since you didn't make a claim, the match stands as played.

Q: All four players in our group were on the green. Player A removed the flag and placed it on the fringe, where it should have been out of the line of putt for all of us. But player B miss-hit her putt, sending it flying, and it rolled into the flagstick. Is there a penalty for hitting the flagstick when it lies on the fringe?

A: Yes, there is a penalty, no matter where the flag lies or what the circumstances were for hitting it (see Rule 17-3). Whenever a ball strikes a removed flagstick that is lying on the ground, the player who made the stroke incurs a two-stroke penalty in stroke play and loss of hole in match play.

Q: I hit a low approach shot to the green just as the beverage cart came around the corner. My ball hit the cart and bounced into the woods. How should I have proceeded?

A: That's one way to get the cart girl's attention! According to Rule 19-1 (Ball in Motion Deflected or Stopped), the ball should have been played from where it came to rest in the woods. If you can't find the ball, you must proceed under the stroke and distance penalty (Rule 27-1, Ball Lost or Out of Bounds) by accepting a penalty of one stroke and by hitting your next shot from the same spot you hit your previous one.

Q: During a recent league match, a man on the opposing team swore profusely after hitting bad shots and actually threw his club across the fairway. Is there a rule against such behavior?

A: There is no specific rule against throwing clubs or using foul language, but the USGA does have a Local Rule for Breach of Sportsmanship Code that allows organizations, leagues and clubs to revoke the playing privileges of or disqualify any player who intentionally offends others with unacceptable conduct (see Decisions 33-7/8 and US/33-8/101). If the behavior persists, ask your league coordinator or tournament committee to take action. And don't forget, a good talking-to may get his attention.

Q: I was playing in our club championship and my ball was behind another player's ball just off the green. I asked that player to mark her ball and she refused. I had to putt around her ball to get to the hole. What should have the ruling been?

A: Rules 22 and 3-4 require a player to lift her ball when it interferes with another's play -- no matter where she is on the course -- if she is asked to do so. In your match, the player who refused to lift an interfering ball, would have lost the hole. In stroke play, she would be disqualified for refusing to comply with a rule affecting the rights of another competitor.

Q: During a match, my opponent wanted to discontinue play because it was raining. So we waited for the weather to clear and then finish the match. Could I have refused to stop?

A: Yes, you could have. According to the exception under Rule 6-8 (Discontinuance of Play; Resumption of Play), if both players agree, you may discontinue play during a match. Since you agreed to stop and resume play later, your match stands as played. But if you had refused to stop, your opponent's only choices would have been either to continue play or be disqualified.

Q: I hit my tee shot on a par 3 into the water, and instead of using the drop area, I re-teed my third shot from the tee. My opponent told me I should be penalized for teeing the ball up again. Was she right?

A: Your opponent was wrong. Ball drop areas are provided as another option to those available under Rule 26-1 (Relief for Ball in Water Hazard), but you can also accept the stroke and distance penalty. This means you are allowed to go back to the spot from which you hit your last shot -- in this case the tee -- tee up the ball and hit your next shot, adding a one-stroke penalty (Rule 20-5, Making Next Stroke from Where Previous Stroke Made).


Q: I didn't realize my partner was marking her ball on the green as I was chipping. Sure enough, my ball hit her putter as she was bending down to place her mark. Should I have been penalized?

A: What a stroke of bad luck (pardon the pun). Unfortunately, this situation will cost you a one-stroke penalty in both match play and stroke play, and the ball must be played from where it came to rest after the deflection (Rule 19-2, Ball in Motion deflected or Stopped). Next time, wait for the green to clear before you hit your chip.

Q: My shot landed short or an island green, rolled down a slope and disappeared into the water. Could I have dropped a ball on that slope? My partner said I had to hit it from the other side of the water, farthest from the green.

A: If the hazard was marked with yellow stakes, your partner was right. You have two options (each with a one-stroke penalty): Play your next shot from where the previous stroke was made, or drop a ball behind the hazard, keeping the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard between the hole and the spot you drop the ball. But if you crossed a lateral water hazard (one marked with red stakes), you'd also be allowed to drop a ball within two club-lengths of where the original ball crossed the margin of the water, no nearer to the hole, on the putting green side, of the hazard (Rule 26-1, Relief for Ball in Water Hazard).

Q: If a player carries a training aid such as The Speed Stik in her golf bag during a tournament, is it considered one of her 14 clubs? If yes, and she exceeds the number of clubs permitted in her bag, what is the penalty? Also, can a player pull out a training aid during play (tournament or nontournament) and use it?

A: It is okay to carry a training aid in your bag, provided it is not a nonconforming club (such as some Medicus training aids). A stick without a head is not a club. However, a player may not use any kind of training aid during a round. The penalty for carrying a nonconforming club or using a training aid is disqualification (see Rule 4-1a and Rule 14-3).

Q: I recently lost my club championship after being assessed a four-stroke penalty for having my husband's golf bag on my cart in addition to my own clubs, even though he wasn't with me. My bag contained 14 clubs, so how was I in violation of the rules?

A: The golf cart you're driving is technically part of your equipment, as is everything in or on the cart (see the Definition of Equipment in The Rules of Golf). Therefore, if you're alone in the cart, all the clubs on the cart, even those in another bag, are considered yours. So under the rules, you had to many clubs with you. The penalty for starting a round with more than 14 clubs is two strokes for each hole at which the breach occurred, with a maximum penalty per round of four strokes (see Rule 4-4).

Q: In a match, a player announces what type of ball she's playing with on the tee. After she gets to the putting green and marks and lifts her ball, can she choose to putt with a different ball?

A: No, she cannot. Rule 15-1 states that a player must hole out with the ball played from the teeing ground." That means, unless you lose the ball somewhere along the way and play a new one with a penalty, you have to putt out with the ball you tee off with. If not, you incur the general penalty-loss of hole in match play or two penalty strokes in stroke play.

Q: During a tournament, everyone declared what type of ball they were using on the first tee. A few holes later, after I hit what I thought was my ball out from the woods, a fellow competitor said that I hit her ball-she had switched to my brand without telling anyone. Sure enough, we then found my ball in the same area, and I had to take a penalty for hitting the wrong ball. Shouldn't she have declared her change of ball?

A: It is always your responsibility to play the proper ball. Your fellow competitor was not required to announce what kind of ball she was playing, or that she had switched brands during the round (although it is a good idea to do so). You receive the proper ruling (see Rule 15-3), when you were assessed a two-stroke penalty for playing the wrong ball (loss of hole in match play) and your fellow-competitor incurred no penalty for the incident.

Q: My friend's ball rests one inch from a cart path but his stance is not impeded. Does he get a free drop because his club will scrape the path if he plays the ball as it lies?

A: Your friend is entitled to relief without penalty because the cart path is an immovable obstruction (see Rule 24-2b). Relief is granted when a ball lies so close to an obstruction that it interferes with a player's area of intended swing, even if there's just a slight chance his stance -- or his club -- will touch the path.

Q: My tee shot landed on the left side of a cart path, and the nearest point of relief was an area of small rocks. Could I have dropped my ball to the right of the cart path, on the fairway?

A: Taking relief simply gets you off the cart path; it isn't meant to guarantee you a good lie (Rule 24-2b, Immovable Obstruction Relief). If the area of small rocks is the nearest point of relief, you'd have to drop it within one club-length of that spot, no closer to the hole.

Q: I live in a golf community that is also inhabited by sandhill cranes. These lovely creatures stand about 5 feet tall and are not at all phased by golfers. Occasionally, they will stand a few yards away from a player who is hitting from the middle of the fairway and watch as she addresses her ball. The birds are not man-made, movable objects, and we certainly cannot choose to hit around them. In this situation, can a player move her ball without penalty?

A: Animals are considered agencies under the Rules of Golf. You can shoo them away, but you're not entitled to drop away from them unless they're dangerous (for example: bees, poisonous snakes and alligators). Sandhill cranes may be large, but they're not dangerous. I suggest talking to the board of your club to reach a solution to this problem. Many American courses use dogs to harmlessly chase away unwanted birds.

Q: A player's ball comes to rest on top of an old abandoned ball in the rough. What is she entitled to do?

A: The player may play the ball as it lies, or, if it's not touching the ground, she may lift it, remove the abandoned ball (movable obstruction) and drop her ball as near as possible to the spot where it was touching the other ball (Rule 24-1b).