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Here's everything you need to know about the embedded ball rule

Here’s everything you need to know about the embedded ball rule

Plugged ball? Here’s how the Rules of Golf say you should proceed

 

There can be confusion around the embedded ball rule, what it is, and what you’re allowed to do if you find yourself in that situation.

So, let’s take apart Rule 16.3 and reveal when and how you can get relief when your ball is plugged…

Everything you need to know about taking embedded ball relief

When can you have embedded ball relief?

Rule 16.3a says the ball has to be embedded in the general area. It can’t be anywhere else. If you’re in a bunker or a penalty area, tough luck – either play it as it lies or take penalty relief under a different rule.

But what about the green? Well spotted. Yes, you can mark the spot, lift the ball, clean it, repair the dent in the putting surface, and replace it but that’s done under Rule 13.1c (2) rather than the one we’re looking at here.

There are also a couple of occasions when even being in the general area isn’t enough. The first is when your ball is embedded in sand “in a part of the general area that is not cut to fairway height or less”.

The second is when there is interference from something else – rather than the ball just being plugged – that would make playing the ball as it lies “clearly unreasonable”.

You can use your imagination here but Rule 16.3a gives a pretty clear example of a ball being in a bush.

And make sure – I know I say this all the time – to have a peek at your club’s scorecard or local rules in the clubhouse or locker room. Committees do have the option to bring in a Local Rule – it’s Model Local Rule F-2 if you’re inclined to take a look – that limits relief for an embedded relief.

It can allow relief relief only for a ball embedded in an area that’s cut to fairway height or less or can also deny it when it’s embedded in the wall or lip of a bunker.

embedded ball

How do you know if your ball is embedded?

This is simple on the face of it but there’s always one who argues. Rule 16.3a (2) says a ball is only embedded if:

– It’s in its own pitch-mark and that was made as a result of that player’s last stroke and…

– Part of the ball is below the level of the ground.

That below the level of the ground bit is important. If it’s sitting down in the grass, but no part of the ball is below that level, it’s not embedded.

Now how can you tell whether the ball is in its own pitch-mark or not? What if there are others nearby? Which one’s which?

Before you start to panic, the rule addresses this. It says that if it’s reasonable to conclude looking at the available evidence that the ball is in its own pitch-mark then you can treat it as embedded. If it’s in someone else’s, you can’t. Sorry Paul Casey.

A clarification to this part of Rule 16.3a (2) goes into some more detail and provides examples. The first considers a ball that’s spun back and, when the player gets there, it’s plugged in the only pitch-mark that can be found in the area. Here, you take relief.

But if the ball bounces over a hill, you couldn’t see where it landed, and you get there and it’s in a pitch-mark, this rule does not allow you to reasonably conclude that the ball is in its own pitch-mark. Here, you can’t take relief under 16.3b.

And if you’re still arguing over what constitutes embedded and what doesn’t, the Rule Book has a really handy diagram that explains it very neatly.

When is a ball not embedded?

Yes, there are occasions where you do need to be told this and all of these might surprise you. If someone steps on your ball and pushes it into the ground, it is not embedded; if it has become plugged after the ball was dropped when taking relief under a rule, it is not embedded; if the ball is “driven straight into the ground without becoming airborne”, it’s not embedded.

Are you allowed to check whether it’s embedded?

Yes, if you reasonably believe – there’s that term again – that your ball is embedded but you can’t tell without lifting it, you are allowed to do so under Rule 16.4.

But… mark the ball first and don’t clean it. You can only do that if you go on to take relief or if you are on the green. Be careful too not to take liberties with this section of the rule. If your belief wasn’t reasonable and you lift the ball, you’ll get hit with a penalty shot.

You also don’t have to tell your playing partners you’re checking and neither do you have to invite them over to observe the process.

How do you take relief for an embedded ball?

Right. Assuming the ball is both embedded in the general area and you’re allowed to take relief, you can drop your original ball or another ball.

You need to establish a relief area and, first, a reference point for it. That’s the spot “right behind” where the ball is embedded. Your relief area is then one club length, but it can’t be closer to the hole.

What if that ‘spot’ isn’t in the general area?

In an outcomes document revealing the changes for the 2023 Rules of Golf, the R&A and USGA said that “In some situations, relief is not available if no part of the relief area is in the general area”.

That’s now been redefined in a clarification to the embedded ball rule. It says that the reference point must be in the general area and if the spot right behind the ball is not, you must find the nearest spot (no closer to the hole) which is and use that as the reference point.

The clarification adds that while this spot would normally be very close to behind where the ball is embedded, “it could be some distance away”.

You may think this will never come up, but it’s good knowledge to have as this same procedure also applies when a ball embeds in the wall or face right above a bunker and when a ball is in bounds but “embeds right next to out of bounds”.

Got a question for our expert?

Despite the changes to the Rules of Golf in 2019 and 2023, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. I’ll try to help by featuring the best of your queries in this column.

What do you think about this embedded ball rule and plugged balls in general? Let me know by leaving a comment on X.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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