When two club-lengths aren’t enough to help with an unplayable lie, what else can you do?
For many amateur golfers, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a tough spot during a round. To make matters worse, it often happens during a strokeplay round, when we can’t simply pick up the ball and move on. Luckily, we have Rule 19 at our disposal, offering us the opportunity to escape challenging situations on the course, typically with a one-stroke penalty.
Its primary purpose is as the name suggests: providing the opportunity to resume playing the hole when your ball gets into a difficult position where you cannot make a stroke at it.
You can take unplayable-ball relief anywhere on the course, except when your ball is in a penalty area. If a ball is unplayable in a penalty area, your only relief option is to take penalty-area relief under Rule 17.
You are the only person who can decide to treat your ball as unplayable, and you do not have to justify it. Your ball can be sitting in the middle of the fairway or right next to the hole, and you may take an ‘unplayable’. A common scenario of a player taking unplayable-ball relief is when the ball is positioned snugly against the base of a tree, and they simply cannot get a club to it to make an effective stroke.
You have three options when taking unplayable relief.
The first is Stroke-and-Distance Relief, which is available to you anytime and anywhere on the course (including in a penalty area). You simply play a ball from the place where you made your last stroke for the penalty of one stroke. You do not have to find and identify your ball to take this option.
The other two options for an unplayable ball are back-on-the-line relief and lateral relief. In both options, you must find your ball first, as both require the ball’s original spot as the reference point for relief. The situation can get messy very quickly if you take one of these two options having not correctly found and identified your ball, including playing from a wrong place (possible serious breach) and possible disqualification. The “my ball is in there somewhere” approach is not satisfactory. You must find and identify your ball to take back-on-the-line or lateral relief.
Back-on-the-line relief allows you to find a relief area that is based on a line going straight back from the hole through the spot of your ball. The relief area can be anywhere on the course, and you can go back as far as you want within the boundaries of the course. Lateral relief allows you to drop a ball within two club-lengths of your ball, no nearer the hole.
When taking unplayable-ball relief, you must accept the outcome even if it remains unfavourable, such as when a dropped ball comes to rest in its original location or in a bad lie in another location in the relief area. Once you have taken relief correctly and the dropped ball comes to rest in the relief area, your ball is in play and you have a new situation to deal with.
However, you may take lateral relief multiple times, using two club-lengths at a time and taking a penalty stroke each time, until you can get a ball into a playable location.
Stuart McPhee is a rules official for the PGA Tour of Australasia and co-host of the No.1 podcast in the world dedicated solely to discussing the Rules of Golf: The Golf Rules Questions Podcast.
Getty images: Matt King