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penalty area in golf

I think I’m in a penalty area but it’s not marked – can I get free relief?

You’ve looked around and there are no lines or stakes to be seen. So how do you know it’s a penalty area? Our rules guru is here to help

 

Red or yellow. Lines or stakes. We can usually see with a glance if we’re in a penalty area or not. But what if there isn’t a post to be found?

What if your ball is in a burn, or a pond, and you can’t find anything to indicate it’s a penalty area? There are no markers. No paint. No lines.

Are you actually in one at all? Could you even take free relief? For every golfer who has ever stood there and scratched their head trying to work this one out, here is the answer…

penalty area rules in golf
BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA – MAY 14: Brian Gay retrieves his ball from a penalty area on the first hole during the third round of the Regions Tradition at Greystone Golf and Country Club on May 14, 2022 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

How do I know if this is a penalty area?

We need to make an assumption first. For the sake of this question, let’s say that where your ball is lying isn’t the focus of a Local Rule or hasn’t already been defined as part of the general area.

If that’s the case, the following may surprise some of you. It’s in the definitions so feel free to have a look yourselves to check it out.

Ready? A penalty area is classed as any body of water on the course. That’s the case where or not it is marked by the committee.

What are we talking about here? All sorts. Think of the obvious – a lake, a pond, a river, even the sea.

It also applies, though, to a ditch, a surface drainage ditch, or another open watercourse. The latter is particularly interesting because it counts even if it doesn’t contain water!

A penalty area is also any other part of the course the committee decides to defines as such.

Now, that doesn’t mean your club can’t follow some best practice. It ought to the marked. The definition of penalty area says the edge “should be defined by stakes, lines or physical features”.

But what if it isn’t? What if you decide you want to take penalty relief? Where do you take it? What colour is the penalty area classed as?

Lots of questions. Let’s go through them. For a start, the penalty area is red and you have three relief options open to you.

Secondly, how would you know where the edge was?

The definition of penalty area comes to the fore again. It says when the edge of a body of water isn’t defined by a committee, “the edge of that penalty area is defined by its natural boundaries (that is, where the ground slopes down to form the depression that can hold the water).”

The Rules take penalty areas pretty seriously. In addition to this definition, and Rule 17, in the Official Guide to the Rules of Golf, the Committee procedures include five whole pages on how to set up penalty areas, and how they are marked and defined. You might want to give it a read.

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.

Have you ever seen golf balls collide on green? 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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