Round 5 – Season Recap






For the final round of this Season of the Short Course, we’re going to take a look back at the full season and the principles covered by the four topics.

The season explored four groups of situations that are the primary exceptions to the fundamental principles of playing the course as you find it and playing the ball as it lies. The entire game of golf is built upon the premise of a continuous chain of strokes played from the tee into the hole, with the ideal being that the ball is not touched after you first make a stroke from the tee and before it is holed. But there are an infinite variety of scenarios that can arise on a golf course that either break that chain or place an unfair burden on the player to keep it intact without remedy. In these situations, relief procedures are required and that’s what Season 2 was all about: Taking Relief.


Relief is broken into two main categories: free relief and penalty relief.



Free relief is designed for the situations where the player finds a ball in a situation that is created by something other than the designed challenge of playing the golf course and making a stroke. Sometimes these situations occur naturally such as with loose impediments, temporary water, certain types of ground under repair and animal holes. Other times these situations occur due to artificial infrastructure put in place to facilitate playing the game, to enhance the player experience or to facilitate increased accessibility (for example, cart paths). In all of these cases, the Rules give free relief options to eliminate whatever is interfering with play.


Relief By Removing the Interfering Object

Since one of the fundamental principles of the Rules is to play the ball as it lies, if there is a way to get you the relief deserved without moving the ball, then that is the preference. This is possible with movable objects. One method for taking free relief that we looked at this season was how you might take relief by simply moving the interfering object.

There are three types of objects the Rules allow you to move: loose impediments, movable obstructions and helping or interfering balls and ball-markers. For all of these three, the way to get free relief is to move the object away… but they are all treated slightly different.

Loose impediments are natural objects. The Rules expect you to come across these objects regularly and consider them to be a part of the challenge of playing the game. Since they are loose and can significantly impact your ability to make a stroke, the Rules allow you to move loose impediments anywhere and in any way, BUT with the caveat that you still need to be careful not to move the ball in the process. A penalty will apply if you cause the ball to move in removing a loose impediment exactly the same as if you had caused the ball to move by kicking it.

Movable obstructions are artificial objects that are not designed to be part of the challenge of playing the game. While there are some of these items that we expect you to encounter because they have become part of the game (rakes, divot sand bottles, broken tees, etc.), they are still artificial and the Rules give more leeway to the removal of these objects. The interference is eliminated in the same way as loose impediments. Movable obstructions may be moved anywhere and in any way, and if you move your ball in the process, there is no penalty and it just needs to be replaced. This gets you the relief warranted for the situation while still ensuring the continuity of playing the ball as it lies from the tee into the hole.

The final type of movable object is a helping or interfering ball or ball-marker. This situation is one that did not quite fit with movable obstructions and also has an element not just of providing relief but of preventing you from getting undue assistance. Another ball is certainly something we expect to find on a golf course, but (at least since 1952) is not part of the challenge of playing golf. So with an interfering ball or ball-marker, the Rules give you the option to have that interference moved away. The catch (since that is still another player’s ball in play) is that this removal can only be done on request and the other player does not have authority to move the ball without your request to do so.

On the flip side, since another ball is not part of the challenge of the game, you don’t get to take advantage of it to help your play. So the Rules allow another player to make you wait for a helping ball to be lifted, or they also give you the right to require a ball that might help any other player to be lifted. There is also a penalty to players who agree to leave this kind of help in place. Because this kind of help is only significant on the putting green, this part of the Rule is limited to the putting green.

Free Relief By Moving the Ball Away

The game has come a long way since the early days on seaside links where artificial interference was minimal and permanent infrastructure for courses did not include cart paths, halfway houses, irrigation control boxes, sprinkler heads, sirens, pumphouses and yardage markers. But even in the earliest days there was other immovable interference that was just not part of the challenge of golf.

In the modern game, the main type of immovable interference is abnormal course conditions. These conditions are abnormal not so much in that they are not expected to occur on a golf course, but in that they are not part of the challenge of playing golf. These conditions (animal holes, ground under repair, immovable obstructions and temporary water) are a mixed bag of artificial and natural happenings that are all equally an unfair burden for you to negotiate. The only way to provide relief is to let you move your ball somewhere else that avoids the interference.

These free relief situations are possibly the grandest exception to the principle of playing the ball as it lies. Because the Rules are explicitly allowing you to play the ball from a new spot, you are not given freedom to choose where that free relief will be taken – you must take relief in a specific area defined by the Rule using the nearest point of complete relief as the reference point.

The nearest point of complete relief is designed to provide the smallest amount of movement required to get the free relief you require from these immovable situations. By definition, this point is the closest point possible to your ball, that is no nearer the hole (so you are not able to advance the ball any further toward the goal of holing it) that provides complete relief from the condition. This definition leads to a very common and important phrase amongst Rules Officials which is that it is the “nearest point, not the nicest.” Because the Rules define where you have to take free relief, the fact that this area may not be a particularly playable position is irrelevant – that is still where the Rules let you take relief. After all, you are not required to take free relief (no play zones excluded). The nearest point of complete relief is defined broadly enough that it is also a reference point for several other immovable situations including wrong greens, no play zones, dangerous animal situations and certain Local Rules.

One situation that the nearest point of complete relief is not used for is an embedded ball. This is a stand-alone, immovable situation simply because the amount of movement to get relief from the specific interference is minimal. So rather than using a reference point that might have you moving the ball farther away (could the pitch-mark interfere with the area of intended swing?), the Rules give you a reference point immediately behind the original spot where the ball was embedded.

One unifying aspect for all of the immovable situation procedures is that you cannot take advantage of the Rules by getting free relief when it is clearly unreasonable to play the ball for some reason other than the specific condition (or another condition that awards free relief), or when the specific interference only happens because of a stance, swing or direction of play that is unreasonable for you to take under the circumstances.


There are a few places your ball can end up on a golf course that prevent you from continuing the chain of strokes from tee to hole uninterrupted, but that do not warrant getting free relief. In some cases, you can still try to play the ball as it lies but also have the option to take a penalty for relief. In other cases the chain from tee to hole is irreparably broken and the only remedy is required penalty relief.


Optional Penalty Relief

There are two primary situations where you get an option to choose to take a penalty stroke (or strokes) to get back to somewhere more playable – when your ball is in a penalty area or you decide to treat your ball as unplayable. The penalty in this case is designed to represent the stroke(s) you would have to make to extricate your ball from the difficult situation.

A nice consistency between the two situations is that the same relief procedures are used for both: stroke and distance, back-on-the-line and lateral relief. Depending on where you are and why you are taking penalty relief, how you apply those options will vary slightly.

Stroke and distance is the ability to play from the previous spot with one penalty stroke. This option is always allowed and is the ultimate method for keeping the chain from tee to hole intact. Because of this, we will see it become the required option for a ball that is lost or out of bounds.

Back-on-the-line is a relief procedure that has been around in some form since as early as the original Rules of Golf in 1744 – “If your ball comes among wat[t]er, or any wat[t]ery filth, you are at liberty to take out your ball & bringing it behind the hazard and teeing it, you may play it with any club and allow your adversary a stroke for so getting out your ball.” While the language has certainly evolved, you can see the same principle in 1744 that we continue to use today. This option does not allow you to proceed any farther on your path to the hole than where the ball last crossed the edge of a penalty area or where your ball came to rest, and so the chain is repaired by taking a penalty to use this option. This option is not always available in the way that stroke and distance is, but it is available whenever optional penalty relief is allowed (such as for both types of penalty areas and when your ball is unplayable).

The third type of penalty relief procedure is lateral relief. This may be the most well-known relief procedure and yet also the most incorrectly applied. Lateral relief means dropping into a two club-length relief area based on a reference point that is either the spot where your ball last crossed the edge of a penalty area or where the ball lies in the case of an unplayable ball. While this option is available for all unplayable situations (though it may not always be useful), it is only available for red penalty areas and cannot be used for yellow penalty areas.

This is where the two types of penalty situations both diverge and yet have a nice consistency. Looking at the whole picture, you have penalty relief options ANYWHERE on the course – you use penalty area rules for relief from penalty areas and you use the unplayable ball rule for relief anywhere else. In this way the two situations work hand-in-hand, but it also means that both cannot apply at the same time (you cannot take unplayable ball relief when your ball is in a penalty area).

Required Penalty Relief

There are some other situations where the chain of playing from tee to hole is irreparably broken and the only remedy is to continue again from where that chain was broken. This happens when your ball comes to rest out of bounds (since you have not successfully played the ball onto an eligible area of the course) or when your ball is lost (since you cannot play a ball that you have not found). That is why in these cases, the only option is stroke and distance – you need to reconnect the chain and continue it from the last point you properly advanced the ball.

There are some exceptions that could apply because a ball can become lost or even end up out of bounds in situations that the Rules would normally give some sort of remedy. These situations require it to be known or virtually certain (a standard of 95% certainty) and include when a ball was moved by an outside influence, deliberately deflected or stopped by a person, came to rest in an abnormal course condition or movable obstruction, or came to rest in a penalty area. Because two Rules technically apply to these situations, you as the player get to choose to take the relief provided by those Rules or to take stroke-and-distance relief. Whichever you choose, the chain from tee to hole is satisfactorily repaired.

Integral to these required relief situations is an optional tool you may use to save time on the course – the provisional ball. The provisional ball at its heart is simply a “stroke and distance just in case.” The Rules allow you to prepay an entire penalty relief procedure to avoid the time delay of having to return to the previous spot. While simple in premise, in order to keep the chain of strokes intact and prevent unwarranted variance away from the tee to hole path, the Rules require an announcement and then also specifically determine when the provisional becomes the ball in play or must be abandoned.

One newer wrinkle to the required relief concept is the Local Rule Alternative to Stroke and Distance. The relief here does not model any other relief procedure and has a relief area that could be a corridor or a significantly larger area including rough, fairway and all the general area in between. This is a two-penalty stroke option for when you would otherwise be required to take stroke-and-distance relief. In principle, the Local Rule is designed to operate no differently than if you had played a provisional ball to the same spot where you end up dropping. In both cases, if it is the tee shot that is lost or out of bounds, you would be playing your fourth stroke next.

Ultimately, the overall concept of taking relief is a necessary and integral exception to the principles of playing the ball as it lies and playing the course as you find it. The only course that would not require these provisions would be a wide-open field with no structures, no soft ground, no water, no rocks, and no place to hide – in other words, a very boring golf course! When looking at the extremes of certain scenarios, you might think that the Rules are treating you unfairly or potentially letting you get away with more than you should. The Rules need to cover an infinite variety of scenarios and that means there will be some unusual outcomes – but the principles behind why relief procedures are what they are always bring us back to trying to keep the single chain of strokes from tee to hole intact with as little variation as possible.


If you are interested in reading the text of the relevant Rules, it can be found primarily in Rules 15 – 19. And as always, if you have any questions, you can reach us directly at [email protected] or 908-326-1850.

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