What’s the Ruling? 5 Unique Rules Scenarios Explained

On many levels, the game of golf is a huge part of my life. Along with writing about, watching, and playing the game as often as possible, I spend a large chunk of my weekends caddying for my two sons. Both boys are competitive junior golfers, and being on the bag for hundreds of rounds, I’ve seen my fair share of rules situations.

Let’s face it—the Rules of Golf are complicated and despite a revision in 2019 by the USGA and R&A, there’s still great uncertainty about many of the rules that come into play.

(Photo by Getty Images)

Here we’ve chosen five unique rules scenarios and explain their proper application. Some I’ve run into while lugging my son’s bag around the junior circuit and others I’ve seen either in the pro game or during a weekend match.

Options in the bunker

Golf is a game that can, and will, catch you off guard at any moment. Case in point—the final round of the U.S. Kids Seaview Open in New Jersey, where one year my youngest son, Rory, held a comfortable lead until things got hairy. Playing the par-three 17th hole on Seaview Bay Course, his tee shot landed in a greenside bunker. When we arrived near the green, we saw that the ball was roughly 90 percent buried and was up against the steep lip of the bunker. Needless to say, a slight sense of panic set in.

Knowing that we had options under the new Rules of Golf, I was able to calm my son down. After convincing him not to play the ball as it lies—with fear of burying it even further in the sand—we decided to talk about our options under the unplayable lie rule.

By choosing to take an unplayable lie, we could drop in line with the pin as far back as we wanted within the bunker and take a one-stroke penalty. Option two, and a newer rule, was to take the unplayable drop outside the bunker, but incur a two-stroke penalty. Rory wasn’t a huge fan of the two-stroke penalty, so we opted for the unplayable within the bunker and took our one-stroke penalty. Knowing that we had options under the new rules definitely made us feel like things weren’t spinning out of control—and Rory (to my relief) held on to win.

(Photo by Getty Images)

Wet and wild conditions

I’ve caddied in some brutal weather in the Northeast—cold, wind, and plenty of rain. Recently, my oldest son was playing in a tournament in New Jersey when the weather turned nasty. Unless a course is deemed unplayable by the grounds crew and course staff, tournaments usually don’t get called off, so on we played though we were teetering on the brink of an underwater golf course.

After hitting approach shots onto an elevated 16th green, we arrived to see a large amount of standing water on the putting surface, and a huge puddle was in the line of one of our playing partner’s putts. While we all hoped to finish the round as quickly as possible with just two holes left to play, the caddies/dads assessed this situation and asked each other, “Can you take relief from casual water on the green?”

The answer is yes. Under Rule 16.1, the ball would be deemed under abnormal ground conditions, even on the putting surface. The player is allowed to lift his ball without penalty and place it at the nearest point that avoids the casual water and is no nearer the hole. That nearest point of dry land could even take the player off the green and into the fringe or rough. Who knew?

Bryson’s tough break

The world’s most elite golfers certainly aren’t immune to the most frustrating of rules scenarios. An interesting one was on display for the world to see during the second round of the 2020 Masters Tournament when Bryson DeChambeau hit his tee shot on the 3rd hole into the left rough. Cameras showed the ball had missed the fairway by only five yards or so, but when DeChambeau arrived in the vicinity, no one could find the golf ball.

Augusta National had fallen victim to a deluge of rain early in the week and conditions at the Masters were wet and soft. The area where DeChambeau’s ball was thought to have landed was soggy, which is where DeChambeau directed his argument with a rules official saying that he should receive casual water relief. Unfortunately for Bryson, no one could identify his Bridgestone anywhere in the rough before the three-minute time limit (reduced from five minutes in the updated Rules of Golf) had expired. Even though he had an idea as to where the ball was, he couldn’t definitively locate it. Therefore, the situation fell under the stroke and distance rule for a lost ball and Bryson was taken back to the tee box to hit another drive—his 3rd shot on the hole.

A few minutes later, a spotter found the ball in the area DeChambeau had been looking and gave it back to him on the next tee box. Ouch.

Bryson DeChambeau looks for his ball at the 2020 Masters (Photo by Getty Images)

It’s a jungle out there

A black panther approaching a green in Florida. Coyotes playing through on Cape Cod. A black bear strolling the fairway in western New Jersey. I’ve pretty much seen it all when it comes to wildlife on the golf course. Once in a while, an animal in its natural habitat plays its way into the Rules of Golf.

This fall, one of my sons dumped his approach shot into a greenside bunker on the 5th hole at The Meadows golf course, only to see the ball disappear. When we arrived at the bunker, we found that the ball had flown directly into a burrowed fox hole. We’d actually seen a fox trotting nearby, and somehow our ball had ended up in his living room.

Luckily, this ball was not considered lost. The Rules of Golf state that burrowing animal holes are considered abnormal ground conditions. Completely different then the flooded green we mentioned earlier, but abnormal just the same which meant the situation also fell under Rule 16.1. My new favorite rule!

Because the ball went into the fox hole, we were entitled to relief without penalty. With the hole residing in the bunker, our drop was in the sand, where we proceeded to play from under the curious eye of the nearby fox.

Oops, it moved

You might remember Dustin Johnson’s rules fiasco at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club. Johnson was deemed to have violated Rule 18-2 and was assessed a one-stroke penalty for inadvertently moving his golf ball on the putting surface while taking a practice stroke. D.J. went on to win the U.S. Open anyway and whether he actually moved the ball can debated until the next Open at Oakmont (2025 in case you were wondering) but the rule was revisited and changed in the 2019 revision. Thank goodness it was!

While caddying recently, my son and I were walking in the rough looking for his marginally errant drive when I felt something hard and round under my foot. Uh oh. I looked down and it was indeed Michael’s TaylorMade TP5 that had now moved a few inches thanks to my FootJoys. I was pretty sure we were okay knowing the new Rules of Golf, but I called a rules official over to confirm. Prior to 2019, if a player or his/her caddy accidently moved the ball while searching for it, the player was assessed a one-stroke penalty. Under the updated Rule 7.4, no penalty was assessed—we simply were told to replace the ball back to its original estimated location. Phew!



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