[PHOTO: Ross Kinnaird]

Whether you’re new to the game or have been playing it for years, you’ve probably experienced the deflating feeling of hitting a great drive that splits the fairway only to find once you’ve reached your ball that it’s sitting in a hole created by someone else’s shot. Although not impossible to play out of – you can read Greg Norman’s advice on how to do it here – it’s still a frustrating situation. You did everything right, yet it feels like you’re being unjustly penalised.

It’s at those moments when you might wonder why the Rules of Golf doesn’t allow you to take free relief. After all, Rule 16.3 allows you to remove an embedded ball anywhere in the general area of the course without penalty. How is this any different, you might wonder?

Let’s have Craig Winter, senior director of Rules of Golf and amateur status for the USGA, explain:

“It’s fundamental to golf to play the ball as it lies,” he says. “And you don’t always get a good lie.”

Although the R&A and USGA, golf’s governing bodies, have considered on various occasions handling divot holes in another manner, there is no “practical solution” other than to leave it as just a part of the game, Winter says. If you think about it beyond the moment you’re in one, how often does it happen to you? Probably not a lot. Furthermore, if the rules-makers were to treat divot holes as, say, ground under repair, think of how many spots on the fairway would then fall into that category? They’re all over the place. They take a long time to heal, and they typically are not a focus of normal golf-course maintenance.

Opinion: In A Deep Hole

For these reasons, don’t expect the “play it as it lies” fundamental to change anytime soon, if ever. Winter says new members of the rules committee want to discuss it from time to time, but it doesn’t go beyond that.

“Philosophically, it’s hard to think of a different way we’d want to go,” he says.

And remember the next time you’re in one, things could be worse. Just ask Jordan Spieth about his final round at the PGA Tour’s Sentry tournament in January. He found his ball in a divot crater on three consecutive holes down the stretch!

Jordan Spieth plays his approach shot out of a divot hole on the 16th hole during the final round of the Sentry tournament in January. [Photo; Kevin C. Cox]
“The [divots] were certainly tough breaks because they were balls that hit in the fairway and funnelled into them,” Spieth said. “Out here, balls funnel into the same spots a lot. It’s not uncommon to be in divots. It kind of stunk that it was three holes in a row, but I still played [them] just fine.”


Our match is going to extra holes. How do handicap strokes apply now?

If I narrow my stance, I’ll be stepping on a sprinkler head. Can I take relief?

I took a drop the old way from shoulder height. Is that a penalty now?

My ball is just outside a ‘no-play zone’. Can I stand in it to hit my shot?

How can I possibly know ‘exactly’ where my ball crossed into a penalty area?

I know I saw his golf ball move when he removed that pine straw. Why wasn’t he penalised?

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Can you pass our 10-question rules quiz?

I’m hitting a 6-iron on a par 3. Can I use my driver to measure the teeing area?

Here’s a crafty (but legal) way to take relief and get your ball into a much better lie

What’s it called now? A quick refresher in rules terminology

When taking relief, when do I drop the ball and when should I place it?

My opponent is acting like a tool. Do the rules say anything about unsportsmanlike conduct?

Can I clean mud off my ball while playing a hole?

My ball’s in the water, and it’s on the move! What are my options?

My opponent looks like he’s whipper-snippering as he searches for a lost ball. When is that a penalty?

My ball is in bounds but an OB stake is interfering with my shot. Can I move the stake?

Can I be penalised for delaying play if I stop to get a hotdog or a drink?

When am I allowed to substitute a golf ball on the course?

I stopped my swing before hitting the ball. Does that count as a stroke?

I hit myself with my own ball. Embarrassment aside, is that a penalty?

What happens in a match when no one knows how to apply a rule?

My opponent stopped my ball from rolling on purpose. Is that a penalty?

While waiting to play a shot, my opponent is killing time by chipping a ball. Is this allowed?

My ball is in a penalty area, so what are my options for taking a drop?

Can I be penalised if someone else improves my lie?

Can you repair divot holes or pitch marks in your line before hitting a shot?

I just played the wrong ball. What do I do now?

What do I do if my ball just hit another ball on the green?

What do you do when the tee markers aren’t lined up or are missing?

Somebody just picked up my golf ball! Now what?

Crazy things that only happen in matchplay

Can you hit a provisional ball after hitting a shot into a penalty area?

Your club breaks, what are your options?

My opponent took a generous drop after hitting into a penalty area. Can he be DQ’d for that?

Can I use a long putter when measuring my relief area?

Our practice putting green sucks. Can I hit a few putts on the course before my round?

I had an extra club in my bag and I just teed off. Now what?

Can I move a stone if it improves my lie?

Are you smart enough to ace this basic rules quiz?

Do I get relief from aeration holes?

What does ‘known or virtually certain’ really mean?

Do you have to use a putter on the green?

You’re playing a Srixon. Two holes later it’s a Callaway. Is switching golf balls mid-round allowed?

I hit a horrible shot. I’m waaaaaay better off if I don’t find the ball. Can I just declare it lost?

I’m on the green, my opponent is not. Who’s away?

Is sneaking a peek in another player’s bag considered getting advice?

What do I do if my golf ball is stuck in a tree?

I conceded a putt. My opponent putted anyway and missed. Is that a penalty?

What is casual water and how do I play around it?

I thought my ball was lost and put another in play then found my first ball… which ball counts?

What happens if I can’t tell my provisional ball from my original?

What exactly is an embedded ball?

How do I find my ‘nearest point of relief’?

How long can I take to hit a shot?

Does a ball have to be unplayable to declare it unplayable?