unplayable lie rules of golf

Rules of Golf explained: Our expert answers your questions

NCG’s resident rules guru has got a full email box of queries. He deep dives into the file and picks out a few hot topics


Some of you might be a bit frustrated with me. If so, I can only offer my fulsome apologies. I get a lot of requests for rulings – dozens every week – and there are only so many I can look at before my employers start asking me who I’m actually working for.

So, I thought I’d try and clear up some of the most common in one big Rules of Golf column. And the results are below.

If I haven’t got round to yours yet, don’t worry. There are plenty more queries in my inbox to do this sort of thing many times over…

Rules of Golf explained: Your rules questions answered

I regularly see caddies throw the ball back to the professional players, no problem. I was watching the John Deere Classic on TV and saw this done on a green with the red lines along the water’s edge. The Pro caught the ball.

Then I thought if he didn’t catch it and it ends up in the hazard, what happens? I understand he has marked his ball before handing it to the caddie but now he must use a different ball to finish the hole. Is it just a matter of ‘OK, we all saw what happened so just grab another ball and keep playing’? – Chris, via email

Ian Poulter’s physical trainer once waded into the water at the Players Championship in 2004 after the Englishman accidentally chucked his ball into a pond – he’d swiped it up from the green and it flew out of the back of his hand.

Thankfully, the Rules are a bit friendlier now to such acts of carelessness. You’re replacing a ball on a spot here, because it’s been marked, and usually Rule 14.2a says the “original ball must be used when replacing a ball”.

But there are exceptions for when you can use another ball. And one of them is this: “The original ball cannot be recovered with reasonable effort and in a few seconds, so long as the player did not deliberately cause the ball to become unrecoverable.”

Rules of Golf exam

Can you declare a ball lost when you’ve hit it off the tee into trouble without looking for it? – Christine Ratcliffe

You can’t declare a ball lost. What you can do, though, is take stroke-and-distance relief. If you tee it up again, don’t announce a provisional, and put another ball into play, that’s now your ball in play. It doesn’t matter, from that point, if you find your original ball. You’re done with it.

Remember you’ve always got that option of stroke-and-distance – even if your ball is in the middle of the fairway!

Is there a penalty for a very short-putted ball that inadvertently hits a golfer’s foot and goes into the hole? – Brian Egan

This is rare, but it does happen – usually when a short putt has horseshoed round. Is it holed? Yes, it is. Rule 11.1a says that if a ball in motion accidentally hits any person – “including the player” – then there’s no penalty.

Because the ball has hit the player, Rule 11.1b (2) says you must normally play it as lies. Which is in the hole!

While taking a practice swing I made contact with my ball – moving it a short distance. My understanding is that I must be addressing the ball for it to count as a stroke played. Can you advise the correct ruling please? – John Aird

Addressing the ball is a bit of a red herring. But the answer is it depends where you moved the ball when taking the practice swing. If it’s on the tee, or on the green, no problem. Just put it back.

If you’re anywhere else on the course, though, and you do this then you’ve caused the ball to move. Although it’s not a stroke, you’re still adding a one-shot penalty to your score.

Once again, make sure you put the ball back where it was. If you don’t, you’ll get penalised for playing the ball from a wrong place.

rules of golf

I hit a ball into a hazard area. When playing out of the hazard my ball hit a metal post, went backwards over my head, and was lost at the bottom of the hazard. How should I proceed and what penalty do I incur? – Sylvia Haq

I’m going to assume by hazard that you’re talking about a penalty area, Sylvia. Your ball in motion has hit an object – Rule 11.1a again – and you’re playing the ball as it lies.

Clearly, you can’t do this because the ball is lost but, as it’s known or virtually certain to be in a penalty area, you can take penalty area relief – for a one stroke penalty – under Rule 17.1.

Rules of Golf

On the final day of our club championship the hole on the 18th green was placed on quite a steep slope. That may have been OK in the morning when the greens were damp but after exposure to sun and wind the greens became very firm and a ball putted from below the hole which missed the cup would not remain by the hole. After a half a second or so it began to roll back down the slope by some 10 or 15 feet.

Would it have been within the rules of golf for a player to ask his caddie to stand by the hole and when the ball stopped for the half second to mark the ball position and pick up the ball before it started to roll back down the slope? – Ian Hodkinson

There is no problem with a caddie lifting a player’s ball on the green. They’re allowed to do that without authorisation through an exception to Rule 14.1b. The key is whether the ball has actually come to rest.

It would be handy to have a definition of this, but there isn’t one so we’ll have to use some common sense. In my book, the ball needs to have come to a stop. If there’s any trace of movement then it has not come to rest, and you can’t mark the position. If it has, mark away.

Have a question for our Rules of Golf expert?

Despite the simplification of the Rules of Golf at the beginning of 2019, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. And as I’ve passed the R&A’s Level 3 rules exam with distinction, I’ll try to help by featuring the best in this column.

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