Found yourself in an impossible position in the sand and not sure what to do? Our Rules of Golf expert has you covered

They talk about finding a watery grave, but it’s being embedded in sand that I truly fear out on the course. And I think some of you feel the same way if this email from Sandra Moses is any guide.

“Our 14th hole, a par-3 has a bunker set in a hillside,” she wrote. “You cannot see the green from the bunker. The face of the bunker is very steep. My ball plugged in the top of the bunker where it was impossible to take a stance.

“As we were only playing for fun I picked my ball up rather than risking a fall in the bunker. What options did I have?”

Several, as it turns out, so let’s get stuck in…

Rules of Golf explained: Unplayable ball in a bunker

plugged ball in bunker

Firstly, I’m going to assume the ball is in the bunker. That is when, according to Rule 12.1, any part of the ball touches sand on the ground inside the edge of the bunker, or is inside the bunker resting on ground where there would normally be sand.

If it’s plugged in the wall or face, it’s not in the bunker and you’ll probably be able to take free relief in the general area. You can read more about that here.

If you’ve scouted out the scene, though, and realised trying to play it as it lies is impossible – or likely to come at the cost of a number of strokes – you can choose not to negotiate this plugged lie and declare your ball unplayable under Rule 19.3.

When you do that, you can decide to take stroke-and-distance relief. Namely, you can go back to where you hit your last shot before it found such a horrible fate in the sand and make another stroke.

You can also take back-on-the-line relief in the bunker. Dropping a ball behind the spot of the original ball and “keeping the spot of the original ball between the hole and the spot where the ball is dropped”. As the name of this relief option implies, you can go back as far as you like.

When you drop, the spot on the line “where the ball first touches the ground” creates a relief area that that is one club length in any direction from that point. That means the ball can go forward. This is new and came into effect in the 2023 Rules of Golf update.

But the ball both must be dropped and come to rest in the bunker. That also applies to lateral relief, which allows you to drop a ball in a two-club relief area. This time, though, the ball must not end up nearer the hole.

All of this trio of options will cost you one penalty stroke.

But if you’ve got a real phobia of bunkers – how many club players don’t? – there is another way.

As an extra relief option, and for two penalty strokes, you can take back-on-the-line relief outside of the bunker.

Found your golf ball plugged in a bunker? What did you do? Did you take relief or heroically try to play it as it lies? Let me know with a tweet.

Have a question for our Rules of Golf expert?

Despite the simplification of the Rules of Golf, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. And as I’ve passed the R&A’s Level 3 rules exam with distinction, I’ll try to help by featuring the best in this column.

You can read all of Steve’s Rules of Golf explained columns here.

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 23 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former captain and committee member, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the national Tournament Administrators and Referee's Seminar. He has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying and the PGA Fourball Championship. A member of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap.

Handicap: 10.9

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