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Fair Play: What the USGA Rules Say About Penalty Shots

Mar 26, 2014

We’ve all experienced “lost ball in high weeds” syndrome. As much as you try to keep your shots on the green, a ball will inevitably land somewhere you’d rather it not. In the middle of the game, it may be hard to remember the rules for getting back on course.

The United States Golf Association covers penalty shots in its Rules and Decisions document, Rules 14 and 26-28. We’ve simplified them here. 

Rule 14: Swing and a miss. Any swing with the intention to hit the ball counts as a stroke, regardless of if you make contact or not. The good news is there in no penalty. The bad news is you are down a stroke, and your ego might be a little bruised.

Rule 26: Water hazards. If you don’t mind getting wet, you can play the ball from the hazard. For a one-shot penalty, you can hit from the origination point again or drop another ball at the place where your ball crossed the hazard.

Rule 26: Lateral water hazards. These are naturally occurring water hazards, like a beach running alongside a course. You have the option to play the ball as it landed. If that’s not feasible, you may drop a new ball at the point where the original ball crossed into the hazard, or as far back from that point as you would like. You can also head to the opposite side of the margin, placing a ball the same distance from the hole, or hit another ball from within two club lengths of the spot you just hit from. Each of these options is a one-stroke penalty.

Rule 27: Out-of-bounds. Often referred to by the abbreviated “O.B.,” an out-of-bounds shot is one that lands outside the parameters of the course. You must play from the spot you just played from, and take the penalty of a stroke plus distance.

Rule 28: Ball Unplayable. Should you hit the ball into a bunker, bush or another tough spot, the player has the right to judge the ball unplayable. For a one-stroke penalty, you can pick up the ball and replace it to a playable spot that’s within two club lengths of where the ball landed, but not any closer to the hole. As a last resort, you can head back to the spot of your original shot. This will cost you distance as well as a penalty stroke.