It’s a place most club golfers fear to tread. But what exactly are you allowed to do when you find yourself in the sand? Our Rules of Golf expert is on hand

The pros make it look simple. For the rest of us, though, the mere sight of a bunker is enough to send our scorecards all of a quicker.

A skirmish with the sand is just a regular fact of a life during a round but, even if you do have trouble extricating yourselves from them, do you know how the Rules of Golf treat a bunker?

Of course, you all know not to ground your club either right in front, or behind, of the ball and I’m sure you don’t need telling not to take some sand with you on your backswing.

But there’s plenty more to know about bunkers and Rule 12 in the Rules of Golf reveals all. So get your bucket and spade ready and ensure you’ll never fall foul again when you’re ball falls into the yellow stuff…

What are the golf bunker rules?

When is my ball in a bunker?

Let’s kick off with something that should, you might first think, seem obvious but I get quite a lot of questions about this and, thankfully, Rule 12.1 provides a full definition.

You can say your ball is in a bunker when any part of it either “touches sand on the ground inside the edge of the bunker” or, is inside the edge of the bunker and rests “on ground where sand normally would be”.

That would include an area where the sand had been either blown away or washed away. If your ball lies on a loose impediment, a movable obstruction, is in abnormal course condition, or an integral object that is either touching the sand, or is on ground where the sand would normally be, then your ball is also in the bunker.

It’s not in the bunker, though, if it is in the wall or face or if it lies on either soil or grass – or another growing or attached object – that’s inside the edge of the bunker without touching sand.

So, to put that in plain English for you, if you find your ball on one of those grassed areas that are sometimes found inside a trap, in that instance it would not be in the bunker.

Can I remove loose impediments and movable obstructions?

Yes you can, but be careful when shifting loose impediments under Rule 15.1. If the ball moves while you’re doing so, you’ll incur a one stroke penalty.

Removing either loose impediments or movable obstructions allows you to “reasonably touch” or move the sand while doing so under Rule 12.2a.

There is an interpretation to this rule that goes into some detail about what would be classed as reasonable, including a pretty good example involving a pine cone.

In this situation, the player drags the cone away and removes some sand from their area of intended swing. In this case, the clarification says the player would get a penalty, under Rule 8.1a for improving the conditions of the stroke.

Why? Did they need to drag the cone away, or could they have just picked it straight up? The rule judges they could have used a “less intrusive” way to do it.

Remember that just because you can take an action that allows you to do something that might otherwise breach a rule, don’t take it to extremes.

What can’t I do in a bunker?

We’ve just shown you an example of where you can fall foul. Rule 12.2b – Restrictions on Touching Sand in Bunker – outlines many more.

You’ll be aware of most. You can’t make a practice swing that touches sand, for instance, and neither can you touch sand in your backswing.

You can’t touch the sand with a club either in the area right in front or right behind the ball (unless you’re looking for a ball or removing a loose impediment or movable obstruction).

And you also can’t either use a club, your hand, or really any other object to test the condition of the sand to help your next shot.

But aren’t there occasions where I can touch the sand?

There are indeed. The 2019 rules changes loosened some of the restrictions that had previously been in place and you no longer were penalised for generally touching the sand in a bunker. That means you can lean on a club to rest, to balance yourself or prevent a fall, you can place objects (including your clubs) in the bunker and you can even chuck them in if you want.

You already know you can dig in with your feet to make a stance either for the shot itself, or a practice swing. And you can even have a strop in the sand and won’t be penalised for striking it in anger.

Smoothing the sand to care for the course and taking actions under a Rule – such as marking, lifting and replacing – will also be sanction free.

But the spectre of Rule 8.1a is always hanging over to you to an extent here. Your actions in touching the sand can’t improve the conditions affecting the stroke. If they do, it’s the general penalty (two shots or loss of hole in match play) for you.

What happens once the ball is out of the sand?

Touch the sand, or smooth it to care for the course. That is the case even if you have to drop a ball in the bunker, by taking stroke-and-distance relief, or if the sand in the bunker is on your line of play and you are taking your next shot from outside the trap.

But – there’s always a but, isn’t there? – if you played a bunker shot, and it comes back into the bunker, or if you drop the ball in the bunker, all those restrictions you’ve seen in Rule 12.2b or 8.1a are now back in play.

That’s why you’ll sometimes see a player who has hit a bunker shot, and knows it’s coming back into the trap, feverishly cleaning up before the ball gets there.

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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