An unlikely, and what many thought unnecessary, penalty for Rickie Fowler proved the inspiration for a significant change when a ball is moved by wind, water, or gravity

Golf Ball moved By Natural Forces?

It came barely weeks into the new 2019 rules – as rows were still raging over the knee-high drop and a caddie standing on an extension of the line.

At the Waste Management Open, in Phoenix in February 2019, Rickie Fowler was leading by five in the final round when his chip on the 11th ran through the green, round a bunker, and into the water.

The American took penalty area relief and dropped onto a steep bank – placing it after two initial efforts rolled into the water.

As Fowler walked up to the green to survey his next shot, his ball crept down the bank and back into the water. He took penalty relief again and went on to record a triple bogey.

It was a poor stroke of luck but the rules as they stood meant he had few other options at his disposal.

The incident didn’t just raise hell on social media, it caught the attention of rules chiefs at the R&A and USGA.

So, as we welcome the new 2023 Rules of Golf, they’ve set about making a change…

What did the old rule say about ball moved by natural forces?

Rule 9.3, Ball Moved by Natural Forces, said that if natural forces caused a player’s ball at rest to move, there was no penalty and the ball must be played from its new spot.

There was an exception where, if a ball on the putting green moved after the player had already lifted and replaced it, it had to be replaced on its original spot no matter what caused it to move.  

What does the new rule say?

There is a new exception to Rule 9.3, which says that if a ball at rest is moved by natural forces after being dropped, placed, or replaced and “comes to rest in a different area of the course or out of bounds”, the ball must be replaced and played from its original spot.

ball moved

What’s the R&A view on the change?

Grant Moir, the R&A’s director of rules, says: “It’s a basic principle of the rules that once the ball is in play and is at rest, other than on the putting green, if the ball is moved by natural forces you play it from where it has moved to.

“But there is always that fear factor when a player has taken relief, particularly in a penalty area when there is a slope and a ball is in play and at rest, that the ball might leave its spot due to natural forces and go back into the same penalty area.

“That resulted in the player having to take another penalty area relief option and it was pretty early into the new 2019 rules where we had an incident with Rickie Fowler that shone a light on it.

“We felt this was something we needed to look at. This was maybe a situation where the rules as they’re written are quite simple and straightforward but there was a concern that it just doesn’t provide the right outcome.

“There is this balance between outcome and simplicity. We were discussing this for some time and we felt it was appropriate to make an exception where if a player has taken relief, and dropped, placed, or replaced the ball, within the relief area and it is at rest, if it then moves from that area into another area of the course – so from the general area into a bunker, or the general area into a penalty area – then the ball should simply be lifted and replaced without penalty.

“We’ve had a few other instances of this at fairly prominent levels of the game but it is quite a complex change and we took a little bit of time to work through it.

“But the outcome is simple and we feel good about it. Hopefully this will mean the rules will avoid being part of the story where people think the outcome seems harsh and unnecessary.”

NCG Verdict

No one who saw what happened to Rickie Fowler thought it was fair at the time and the game’s governing bodies have acted with this new exception.

The conditions of our golf courses are getting ever better and the chance of a ball being dropped, coming to rest, and then being moved by wind or gravity into a new part of the course – and out of bounds, or into a penalty area, at worst luck – isn’t just a phenomenon at the top levels, it’s a risk in our everyday game as well.

If you’ve already taken relief, it’s clearly an anomaly to be then ‘punished’ for an outcome that had nothing to do with any of your actions.

And it also removes any uncertainty of what to do if you find yourself in that unlikely situation. It’s another welcome rule change.

What do you think of the rule change for a ball moved by natural forces? Let me know with a tweet.

More on the 2023 Rules of Golf update

We’ve painstakingly been through every update to make sure you have everything you need to know about the biggest changes, from penalties in Stableford, handicaps on scorecards, back-on-the-line relief, and much, much more.

Rules of Golf podcast

Steve Carroll and Tom Irwin sat down to discuss the 2023 updates on the From the Clubhouse podcast.

Listen in the player below, or on your preferred podcast platform.

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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