Taking relief from a penalty area is dreaded but inevitable. Are you doing it correctly, though? Let’s take a look at how well you know Rule 17

Oh dear. You’re a bit wayward off the tee, your ball flies towards that big lake and you’ve seen the familiar splash that tells you your ball is sunk. How many times have you randomly walked off in the direction of the water, reached into your bag, and just dropped another ball into play? If you’re taking relief from a penalty area, there are specific relief options you can use. So if you’ve ever wondered what you can do – or been accosted by another player for not taking a drop in the right place – let the Rules of Golf put you in the picture…

When is your ball in a penalty area?

Seems obvious, right? After all, there was a big splash. But a penalty area isn’t necessarily just a body of water. They can be other areas defined by the committee where a ball is often lost or is unable to be played.

So a penalty area could be a lake, pond, river, or even the sea, but it can also be a surface drainage ditch, and it doesn’t necessarily have to contain water.

The Rules say a ball is in a penalty area when any part of the ball “lies on or touches the ground or anything else (such as any natural or artificial object) inside the penalty area, or is above the edge or any other part of the penalty area”.

What if I just think the ball is in there?

Not good enough. You need to know, or be virtually certain, that the ball came to rest in a penalty area. If it did, you then have the option to take penalty relief.

If you don’t know you must take stroke-and-distance relief instead.

Known or virtually certain means there is either conclusive evidence it happened – so you or other witnesses saw it – or even though there’s a very small degree of doubt “all reasonably available information shows that it is at least 95% likely that the event in question happened”.

It is in there. What now?

Congratulations, your ball is at rest or lost in a penalty area. What to do? You have two choices:

1. You can play it as it lies. The 2019 Rules revisions brought a change here so you can play the ball exactly as you would if it was in the general area. That means you can ground your club.

2. Play a ball from outside the penalty area by taking penalty relief.

taking relief from a penalty area

I’ll take relief, please…

I don’t blame you – seems silly getting wet to advance it no more than 10 yards and ruin your clobber.

What happens now depends on whether it’s a yellow or red penalty area. You’ll normally be able to tell the colour either from the posts that mark the area, or a painted line. If there’s neither post nor paint, it’s classed as red.

Let’s start with yellow. For one penalty stroke, you can take:

1. Stroke-and-distance relief: Either play the original ball or another ball from a relief area based on where the previous stroke was made.

2. Back-on-the-line relief: Drop the original, or another, ball in a relief area that is based on a reference line “going straight back from the hole through the estimated point where the original ball last crossed the edge of the penalty area”. There’s no limit on how far back on the line you can go.

The key bit is ‘straight back from the hole through the estimated point’. Don’t just wander down towards the penalty area, drop one wherever you like, and hit it. You’ve just played a ball from a wrong place.

And if you’ve forgotten the procedure you need to take to drop a ball correctly? We’ve got you covered here.

If it’s a red penalty area, you can – for one penalty stroke – do exactly the same things you would for yellow but you’ve also got an extra option.

Yes, we’re talking lateral relief people!

So where the ball has last crossed the edge of a red penalty area, you can establish your relief area, which is two club lengths with the usual limits (no nearer the hole, any area of the course except the penalty area and so on), and drop.

Anything else?

You can only take relief in a penalty area under these options contained in Rule 17. So no trying to claim an abnormal course condition is interfering with your ball, or it’s embedded or unplayable.

Dangerous animals? Well, that’s different. If an alligator is eyeing you up, take free relief in the penalty area (at the nearest point of complete relief from the offending beast) or penalty relief outside it.

And for those situations where there’s a no play zone in a penalty area, where you’ve tried to play it as it lies only to stick it into a penalty area again, or how to use a drop zone, check out the full Rules of Golf here.

All clear?

So next time you’ve dunked one in the H2O, don’t just drop willy-nilly wherever you feel like. Follow the procedures in Rule 17 and you won’t enrage your playing partners or pick up a nasty surprise on your scorecard.

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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