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USGA Rules: Relief for an unplayable ball

The GCAA is partnering with the USGA, represented by Jamie Wallaceto do a feature on the Rules of Golf focusing on common situations that players encounter. Each month, we plan to highlight a specific Rule or Rules situation that is relevant to college golfers or one that is often misunderstood. We will highlight what the Rule says and how it is applied to the situation at hand.

This month, Jamie is reviewing the options when you find yourself with a difficult lie and wish to take relief under the ball unplayable Rule.

Rule 28 allows you to take relief for an unplayable ball anywhere on the golf course except when your ball lies in a water hazard, where the water hazard Rule applies.

One of the most important concepts relating to this Rule is that you, the player, are the sole judge as to when your ball is unplayable. However, this was not always the case.

In one of the more interesting short-lived experiments in the Rules of the game, various Rules codes throughout the 1800s required the consent of your opponent before relief for an unplayable ball could be taken. Some versions of this Rule even allowed your opponent to attempt to play your ball to prove that it was playable, and if they were able to advance it to a playable position (sometimes being allowed up to three attempts to do so), those strokes counted in your score and you continued play of the hole!

Thankfully, this chaotic and adversarial element of the Rule was dropped, and today there is nothing to stop you from deeming your ball unplayable in the middle of the fairway if you choose to.

Once you decide that the best course of action is to deem your ball unplayable, you have three relief options, all of which come with a penalty of one stroke.

  1. Stroke and distanceFollowing the same procedure as for a ball that is lost or out of bounds, you can use stroke and distance to return to the spot of your previous stroke.
  2. Back on a line: Draw a straight line from the flagstick through the spot where your ball lies and drop a ball anywhere on the line behind that spot with no limit to how far back you can go.
  3. Two club-lengthsDrop a ball anywhere within two club-lengths of where your ball lies, but not nearer to the hole.

The only exception to the above options is when you deem your ball unplayable in a bunker. Take a look at the video below from the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links. On the 18th hole, Lee Westwood found himself with a difficult lie in a fairway bunker.

Westwood still had the same three options discussed above, except with the restriction for options b and c that he must drop the ball in the bunker. The video here does a great job of illustrating the slightly restricted unplayable options you have when your ball lies in a bunker.

If you have a Rules question that comes up in a tournament this spring or that happened during a past round, feel free to send it in to us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and perhaps we will address it in a future newsletter. If you have any questions about the topics discussed here, or have any other Rules of Golf questions, please feel free to contact the USGA Rules department at 908-326-1850 (available seven days a week) or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..