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Unplayable ball in a bunker

Unplayable ball in a bunker? Here’s what you need to know

If you’ve found yourself in a spot of bother in the sand, our Rules of Golf expert is here to give you the lowdown on what to do when you just can’t play it as it lies

 

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how optimistic you are. You’ll arrive at your ball, see it buried in the sand, and know there is no way you’re getting it out. It’s an unplayable ball in a bunker.

What now? How can the Rules of Golf get you out of this potentially scorecard-wrecking spot and back into play? Let’s look at Rule 19.3 and the relief options for an unplayable ball in a bunker…

Everything you need to know about an unplayable ball in a bunker

Unplayable ball in a bunker: Stroke-and-distance relief

No matter where you are on the course, you always have the option of stroke-and-distance relief for one penalty stroke. Simply go back to where you played your last shot – estimate if you’re not completely sure – drop a ball in a one-club relief area and hit it again.

Unplayable ball in a bunker: Back-on-the-line relief

Take the spot of the ball in the bunker and go straight back from the hole through that spot. You choose a reference point that’s further from the hole than the spot of the ball and you drop in a one club relief area.

The spot on that line where the ball first touches the ground after being dropped then creates a relief area that is one club length in any direction. Yes, that means it can go forwards and, yes, you must drop on the line.

But that has to be in the bunker. As with stroke-and-distance, it comes with a one-shot penalty.

rake a bunker

Unplayable ball in a bunker: Lateral relief

You know the drill. Take the spot of the ball and your relief area is two club lengths. Again, add a penalty stroke to your score and, as for back-on-the-line relief, the ball must be dropped in, and come to rest in, a relief area in the bunker.

Unplayable ball relief in a bunker: Back-on-the-line relief outside the bunker

This is primarily designed to help those of us hackers who would otherwise be racking up cricket scores in the sand.

You can now take back-on-the-line relief outside of the bunker. You do it in the same way as earlier – spot of the ball through the flag and a one-club relief area – but it will cost you an extra penalty stroke. So, to repeat, taking back-on-the-line relief and dropping outside of the bunker is a two-stroke penalty.

What if I take relief and I don’t like it?

The problem with sand is that it’s just a bit unpredictable. You can take unplayable ball relief in a bunker, correctly drop the ball, and find yourself in another horrible lie. What now? A clarification to Rule 19.2 lays it all out there.

You’ve found yourself in a new situation. You can take unplayable ball relief again, for another penalty stroke (so that’s TWO in total), and use the new spot of the ball for back-on-the-line or lateral relief.

You can still opt for stroke-and-distance relief as well and play again from where the previous stroke was made.

If you’re sick of faffing around dropping balls in the bunker, you can also decide to go for back-on-the-line relief and drop outside the trap.

That will be three penalty strokes in total. One for the first time you took unplayable ball relief, and a further two for taking your ball and dropping out of the sand.

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 these unplayable ball in a bunker rules? 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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