One of the most straightforward acts in golf – in a physical sense – has come to the forefront lately. It seems the game has dropped the ball in the metaphorical sense when it comes to the simple deed of dropping the ball.

Scrutiny during the first round of the Players Championship was far higher on Rory McIlroy’s penalty drop on the seventh hole at TPC Sawgrass than it was on the 65 he carded that day. The group of McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland paused for about 10 minutes to determine where the Irishman should drop his ball beside the penalty area (hazard) left of the seventh fairway on the Stadium course after his tee shot found the water.

Deep discussion, that also involved spectator input and eventually a rules official intervening, held up play before everyone was comfortable and McIlroy dropped and played on.

It is also worth noting that the field didn’t complete that first round before darkness descended.

It was an intriguing situation for multiple reasons. First, because it happens so frequently. We’ve all encountered this same situation many times as regular golfers. Second, it’s so difficult to be totally accurate when the area in question is usually hundreds of metres from where the players’ eyeballs were at the time. But also because it is perhaps the area in golf where the rules are most vulnerable – whether deliberately or otherwise.

There have been plenty of visible examples of this (and probably a lot more not-so-visible ones) on the pro tours. In the Twitter/X age, though, arguably the most visible dispute occurred when Joel Dahmen openly questioned the drop Sung Kang took at the PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans event in 2018, which you can read about here:

In a game often defined by mere millimetres (who remembers this Michelle Wie story from her professional debut in 2005:, it is somewhat built in to golf that occasionally a ‘that’ll do’ approach is the only viable option.

But is a ‘best guess’ scenario really the best golf can do? Is it time to overhaul the dropping procedure when a ball’s location or crossing point can’t be determined?

There would seem to be two alternative options, one of which is particularly harsh. That would be to treat all lost balls – whether in a penalty area or not – the same way. So if you can’t find or play your ball no matter where it is, you’re re-hitting the previous shot.

I wouldn’t advocate for this option, even if it removed all conjecture from the situation. It’s excessively penal and would not help pace of play as golfers would frequently need to trek backwards to re-hit from the previous spot (although hitting a provisional ball would help). In golf, you want to always be pushing on, not walking back.

Instead, I’d vote for another option, one that I have long pondered could be used and one I often use myself when it comes to non-competitive rounds played on my own: go to the nearest stake.

Even though on tour painted lines are more commonplace that stakes on the boundaries of penalty areas, at most courses’ stakes prevail and could always be reinstated. So, my idea would mean that a large lateral pond – like the one McIlroy fell foul of at the Players – would be broken into segments by stakes. You would simply drop next to the nearest stake, which would be much easier to determine than the exact place the ball crossed the margin.

I asked our resident rules expert Stuart McPhee for his thoughts on the idea. He didn’t see an ideal solution.

“If you were to use a new relief procedure of dropping at the closest stake, there is still potential for disagreement between players based on where they believe the ball came to rest or entered the water, or even which is the nearest stake,” he said. “Further, using red lines is the preferred choice for marking penalty areas as they are more accurate than using stakes.

“If you were to consider every single golf ball that enters a penalty area around the world, the times when another player strongly disagrees with the player’s estimation, would be less than 1 percent. This number would be less at club level. Given this very low occurrence of strong disagreement, I am comfortable with the long-standing principle of using a player’s reasonable judgement, if it is done promptly!”

In the McIlroy incident, McPhee also queries the appropriateness of the location of the red line marking the edge of the penalty area.

“On that hole, I am surprised that the red line isn’t right down near the water’s edge. In this case, if the ball touches grass before entering the water, then we know for certain that it has crossed around a particular point and the player would be able to drop closer to where it entered the water. More importantly, the time taken to reach a consensus about where the ball last crossed with McIlroy was excessive.

“Golf is unique in that it is played on a very large playing field, and it is difficult to monitor everything and everywhere. This is why right at the start of the Rules of Golf, the rules address using reasonable judgement and considering all information reasonably available when establishing the facts of what has happened to a ball.”