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Rules FAQ’s

The rules of golf – especially unfamiliar ones – may sometimes seem “unfair”, even “ridiculous”. It’s a game - there is luck involved, and the same rules apply to everyone.

From JPMGC experience, here are some lesser known, or more frequently misunderstood rules. All the rules on this page are from the USGA rules of golf.

Play the course as you find it and play the ball as it lies.

This is the first central principle of the game of golf. See the purpose of Rule 1 (mobile).

Protect Other Players in the Competition

“If you know or believe that another player has breached the Rules and does not recognize or is ignoring this, you should tell that player, the player’s marker, a referee or the Committee. You should do this promptly, and certainly before the player returns his or her scorecard. Your failure to do so could be serious misconduct resulting in disqualification.” (See rule 20.1c.)

Must hole out

In stroke play,[1] “you must hole out.” There are no “gimme’s.” A player who picks up without holing out must replace the ball and complete the hole. Also, add a penalty stroke for touching the ball (see FAQ below). If the player does not hole out before teeing off on the following hole, he is disqualified. (See rules 3.3c and 9.4b.)

[1] This is true for any tournament format in which a player’s individual hole score counts.

No maximum hole score

There is no maximum hole score in normal stroke play competitions. (There is a maximum score that may be posted for handicap, but the actual score counts in competition.)

Temporary greens

Putt out as on all greens. There is no maximum number of putts.

See rule 1.1 - The Game of Golf.

Drop Zones are not used

For a ball in a penalty area, refer to rule 17.

Lost ball

A ball is lost if it is not found in a total of three minutes of searching. If found after, it cannot be played. (See the definition of Lost and rule 18.2.)

Provisional ball

You may play a provisional ball if your ball might be lost outside a penalty area or out of bounds.[2] “But if you are aware that the only possible place the original ball could be lost is in a penalty area, a provisional ball is not allowed....” (See rule 18.3.)

For example, on hole #4 there is tall grass near the penalty area. If it is difficult to tell whether a ball is in the penalty area or lost outside the penalty area, you may play a provisional ball. This is different from the right side of the 16th fairway - a ball to the right is either in the penalty area or not. It will not be lost outside the penalty area. You may not play a provisional ball in this situation.

What to do next: If the original ball is found anywhere on the course, or it becomes known or virtually certain that it is in a penalty area (or abnormal course condition), then the provisional ball must be abandoned. If the original ball is not found and it is not known or virtually certain that it is in a penalty area, then the ball is lost, and the provisional ball becomes the ball in play.

Remember that you “may continue to play the provisional ball without it losing its status as a provisional ball so long as it is played from a spot that is the same distance or farther from the hole than where the original ball is estimated to be.”

[2] There is also the Stroke and Distance Alternative local rule. See Local Rules.

Known or virtually certain in penalty area

“If it is not known or virtually certain that your ball came to rest in a penalty area and the ball is lost, you must take stroke-and-distance relief.” (See rule 17.1c) There are many penalty areas adjoining tall grass or brush where there can be a lack of certainty and stroke-and-distance is the only option. (Or see the Stroke and Distance Alternative local rule in Local Rules.)

Moving or touching a ball in play is a one stroke penalty

Except in the teeing area,[1] which the rules treat specially. There are 4 exceptions that apply to other areas of the course. (See rule 9.4b.)

[1] The Teeing Area is the teeing location you are playing from on the current hole. “All other teeing locations... (whether on the same hole or any other hole) are part of the general area.”

Moving or touching a ball on the green without marking is a one stroke penalty.

Unless it was accidental.[1] This includes the ball must be marked before lifting or moving it or while rotating it in place (See rules 13.1d and 9.4b.)

[1] A mental lapse is not part of the definition of accident.

No free relief from driving range fence.

The driving range fence is a boundary object - there is no free relief. Same applies to all the course boundaries.

Immovable obstructions

There is usually free relief outside of penalty areas. A few examples of immovable obstructions[1] at Jackson Park: all paved or gravel cart paths[2], irrigation system components, shed on the left of #1 layup area, fence on the right of #3, bathroom behind the 6th green, rock wall left of the 11th green, water fountain behind the 15th green, power poles, etc.

Relief is available when there is “interference”[3] for playing a "reasonable" shot. The obstruction must be in bounds.

NOTE: The fences surrounding the course and the driving range are boundary objects, not obstructions. Boundary objects are defined as: "Artificial objects defining or showing out of bounds, such as walls, fences, stakes and railings, from which free relief is not allowed."

[1] An obstruction is "any artificial object except for integral objects and boundary objects". An immovable obstruction is an obstruction that cannot be easily moved or is intended not to be moved (such as a rock that is part of a rock wall).

[2] Bare ground, such as from cart traffic, is not an immovable obstruction because it is not artificial. There is no free relief.

[3] Interference means “your ball touches or is in or on the abnormal course condition, or the abnormal course condition physically interferes with your area of intended stance or area of intended swing”. Interference does not include visual distraction or line of play (possibly confusing because the PGA Tour has a local rule allowing line of play relief). See rule 16.1 (mobile) and rules definitions for more, including relief exceptions and procedure.

No relief from divots

Divots are part of golf’s fundamental challenge to play the ball as it lies.[1]

[1] See "Play the ball as it lies" discussion in this article.

Ground Under Repair must be marked

The only exceptions are a hole made by staff[1] in maintaining the course, material piled for removal, or animal habitat. For example, unless marked, the following are not ground under repair (GUR): bare ground, mud, tire tracks, fairway ruts or depressions, irregular turf, tilled area, etc. These are all part of the "fundamental challenge of the game" to play the ball as it lies.[2] See the definition of Ground Under Repair (mobile).

A common misconception is that anything "abnormal" is GUR. But the definition of abnormal in the rules of golf is not the dictionary definition. The word is mentioned only as part of the term abnormal course condition (mobile), defined as any of these defined conditions: animal hole, GUR, immovable obstruction, or temporary water.

[1] Where “hole made by staff” can be as shallow as made by “removing turf”.

[2] See the parallel discussion of divots in this article.

Temporary Water must be visible

An area is considered Temporary Water – from which free relief is allowed – only if water remains visible before or after taking a stance. (See the definition of Temporary Water.)

Embedded Ball not found is a lost ball

A ball that is not found because it embedded is lost.[1] The penalty is stroke and distance.[2] Only exception is if it is known or virtually certain that it is lost in an abnormal course condition. (See the previous two paragraphs, the definition of abnormal course condition, and rule 16.1e.)

[1] See USGA Embedded Ball FAQ.

[2]  Or the Stroke and Distance alternative local rule. See Local Rules.

Relief must be taken separately for each condition

Areas to be used for free relief or penalty relief[1] - “may result in better or worse conditions.”[2] And may be in or on an abnormal course condition, such as a cart path, temporary water, etc. After taking relief, if there is interference by an (another) abnormal course condition, further relief may be taken. (See the definition of Nearest Point of Complete Relief.)

For example, while taking lateral relief from the penalty area to the left of #16, the relief area may be on the cart path. Immediately dropping and playing from right of the cart path (more than two club-lengths from the penalty area) is not allowed.[3] (See rule 14.7Playing from Wrong Place.)

[1] The penalty relief area for an unplayable ball or a ball in a penalty area may be in any area of the course. The nearest point of complete relief from an abnormal course condition for a ball in the general area must be in the general area. (There are separate rules for bunkers.)

[2] See Clarification 16.1/1.

[3] Here is a video explanation:

Relief from abnormal course condition is optional

The player is not required to take relief from an abnormal course condition (immovable obstruction, ground under repair, temporary water, or animal hole).

Drop, drop, place

When dropping, if the ball twice fails to come to rest in the relief area[1], then it must be placed on the spot where it first touched the ground on the second drop. You are permitted to drop near the edge of the relief area with the hope that the ball will roll out of the relief area so that it may be placed after two drops. (See rule 14.3c(2).)

[1] Relief area was a new term and concept added to the rules in 2019.  The ability to place the ball after two drops existed previously, but was less common.

Practice greens are wrong greens

Play is prohibited from all practice greens[1]. For a ball or stance on a practice green, drop within one club length of the nearest point of complete relief, not nearer the hole.[2] (See rule 13.1f.) Please notify others in the area before playing so as not to endanger them.

[1] As of 5/31/21, there is no longer a drop zone for balls hit into the practice area near the 18th green - play is allowed from that area..

[2] Because of the size and location of the practice greens at Jackson Park, the required relief area may be undesirable, such as behind trees and further from the hole. Taking a penalty of stroke and distance for the previous shot is also an option.

Resolving Rules Issues During Round

Avoid unreasonable delay. You may protect your rights during the round as follows:

Match Play – If you are unsure of the rules during a match, you and your opponent may agree on how to decide a rules issue. If you do not agree, you may notify your opponent and then request a ruling when the tournament committee is available. See rule 20.1b for details.

Stroke Play – There is no right to decide rules issues by agreement. If you are uncertain about the right procedure during stroke play, you may complete the hole with two balls. When doing so, before making a stroke, you must announce you are playing two balls, and which ball you want to count. Regardless of what happens with the two balls (for example, even if you believe you resolved the question on your own, or even if both balls score the same), before submitting your score, you must report the facts to the tournament committee. See rule 20.1c for details.