Ask the ref

If you have a question on the Rules, or would like clarification on a disputed point, please use the Contact Us page to send your query.

Any words below in italics have a definition in the front of the Rule book.  These definitions are fundamental to the understanding of the Rules of Golf and should be understood in order to increase knowledge of the Rules.  Questions received may be edited by the website administrator if it helps to make the situation in question clearer from a Rules perspective.


Q.  At a recent big NZ event at Paraparaumu, a player had a ball unplayable in a bunker. The nearby marshall who was not a referee, advised the player she could drop it outside the bunker back on the line with the flagstick as one of her options, so she did. Was that correct?

A.  The player should have known what to do anyway, but if not sure, she should have called for a referee. The person advising her was incorrect. Unless you are going back to where the last stroke was played from, the other two options for a ball lying in a bunker under Rule 28, require the ball to be dropped in the bunker (either back on the line behind the ball or within two clublengths in any direction, no nearer the hole). All options of course carry the one penalty stroke.

As the person who offered the incorrect Rules advise was not a member of the Rules Committee, the player was still liable for a two stroke penalty for playing from the wrong place. The committee may also have looked at the situation to see if a significant advantage was gained by playing from the wrong place. If that was the case, then since it was not corrected before teeing off the next hole, the player would have been disqualified.  It pays the learn the rules or seek a referee, rather than take the advise of the first person who offers it.

On 1 January, 2019, the option offered by the marshall of coming back on a line outsde the bunker will be permitted, but it will carry an additional penalty stroke, i.e. a two stroke ball unplayable penalty.


Q.  After searching for a ball for a few minutes, I headed back to the tee. I played another ball from the tee but the others in my group found my first ball before 5 minutes was up. I picked up my second ball and played on with the first one.  Is that OK?

A.  Sorry, but if you did that and then teed off the next hole, you are disqualified from the event in stroke play (lose the hole in match play or just score 0 points for that hole if playing Stableford). The moment you made a stroke at that other ball from the teeing ground, your original ball was immediately deemed lost.  By then playing that original ball, you played a wrong ball in breach of Rule 15-3 and needed to correct it before starting the next hole.

It's also worth noting that had it been your second shot (for example) that was being searched for, and you went back to play another from the last place you played from -  in that situation the moment you drop another ball into play, the original ball is deemed lost and you must carry on with the ball just played under stroke and distance.


Q.  If I play a provisional ball and then find my original ball deeep in the trees, can I choose to play my provisional ball.

A.  No. A provisional ball is played in case the original ball is lost or out of bounds. If the original ball is found, you may as well pick up the provisional ball as it will never be played.  If your originall ball is not playable, you have to decide on what action to take within the rules. That may well include going back to play under stroke and distance.  Yes, it is certainly not a time-saver, but is under the rules, you cannot just choose to play the provisional ball if you do not like the original ball's lie.


Q.  One of our ladies hit her bag with her club as she followed through playing a shot. Is she penalised?

A.  No. Rule 19-2 covers the player's ball striking their own or their partner's equipment after making a stroke, but there is no Rule that penalises a player for striking any equipment with the club when making a stroke.


Q.  If the ball is lying off the putting green, can a ball pitch-mark on the putting green be repaired, even if it's on the line of play.

A.  Yes, a player may repair ball pitch-marks and old hole plugs on the putting green at any time. His ball does not have to lie on the putting green.


Q.  Two singles matches are playing in the same group. AvB and CvD.  C 's ball is on the putting green and it is A's turn to play from just off the putting green. He plays and as the ball is in motion, Player C, thinking A's ball may strike his ball, quickly marks and lifts his ball.  Player B was annoyed by this and wanted to claim the hole from Player A because Player C was from the same Golf Club and Player A.  Is that a valid claim?

A.  No, just because A and C are on the same Pennants team, Player A and Player C are nothing to do with each other in this scenario. These are two singles matches, not a fourball match. However, Player D could have claimed the hole against player C, because Player C breached Rule 16-1b when he lifted his ball to stop another ball in motion from striking it.  The fact that the other ball was not part of his match, is irrelevant.


Q.  My opponent's ball landed just next to the OB line marked with stakes. Just beyond this line was a cable supporting an electric pole. The cable was beyond the OB line and outside the course (It did not mark the OB line). His back swing was interfered by the cable. What is the ruling?

A.  The definition of an Obstruction is the answer you are looking for. It states any part of an immovable artificial object located out of bounds is not an obstruction. Therefore no relief under Rule 24-2 is permitted.  The player must play the ball as it lies or declare it unplayable.


Q.  We are running a Pennants day which is match play format. Can we also have a separate individual competition at the same time where each player plays against the card, so the pennants players can also be part of that competition?

A.  This is against Rule 33-1.  Playing against the card is known as a Par competition and is a form of stroke play (see Rule 32-1).  The card cannot make claims against you, so it stands to reason that a Par competition is played under all the usual stroke play rules. No different to Stableford except instead of points, it is scored in terms of a win, half or loss against the par of the hole for your nett score.   There are many occasions where a different action is to be taken depending on whether you are playing a match or playing stroke play, so combining the forms of play is not possible and in breach of Rule 33-1.  That is DQ from the Par competition and the pennants match being played is null and void.  No one has the authority to waive this Rule.


Q. If I hole a shot from off the putting green, do I have to remove the flagstick before I take the ball out of the hole?

A. No. As long at the whole ball is below ground level, the ball is holed and you can just take it out with or without removing the flagstick.

If any part of the ball is still above ground level and resting against the flagstick, Rule 17-4 applies. You can move the flagstick in any way and if the whole ball falls below ground level, it is holed.  If the ball moves away from hole when the flagstick is moved, it is not holed and should be placed on the lip of the hole ready for the player to take another stroke.


Our course has many competely flooded bunkers in the current wet weather. Can we allow players to drop out of the bunker without penalty?


Here is Decision 33-8/27;

Q. May a Committee make a Local Rule allowing a player to drop out of any bunker filled with casual water, without penalty, contrary to Rule 25-1b(ii)?
A. No. The Committee may not make a Local Rule providing generally that flooded bunkers are ground under repair through the green as such a Local Rule waives a penalty imposed by the Rules of Golf, contrary to Rule 33-8b.
However, in conditions of extreme wetness, where certain specific bunkers are completely flooded prior to the competition commencing and there is no reasonable likelihood of the bunkers drying up during the competition, the Committee may, in such exceptional circumstances, introduce a Local Rule providing that specific bunkers, which are known to be flooded prior to the competition commencing, are deemed to be ground under repair and classified as through the green. Therefore relief may be taken outside these bunkers without penalty in accordance with Rule 25-1b(i). In a competition played over more than one round, such a Local Rule may be introduced or rescinded between rounds. 

So, unless a bunker has been declared as GUR by Local Rule, there is no option to drop outside the bunker without penalty. To avoid a penalty, a player may drop the ball in a part of the bunker, no nearer the hole, that affords maximum relief (could be from 2 inches of water to 1 inch of water if no dry sand available).  Otherwise, the player may drop outside the bunker in accordance with Rule 25-1b(ii)(b) under penalty of one stroke.

If a club has known issues over a given period each year that affects play, the club should contact its district body to seek a temporary cessation of handicapping submissions.  That way, a club can play its own competitions with unauthorised Local Rules.



In a recent match play game a ball that was thought to be on the fairway was marked and lifted (15cm placing on own fairway was the local rule). However upon further inspection it was found the ball was actually on the 2nd cut. Would it have been permissible to have declared the ball unplayable, as it had not been replaced or played yet, for a 1 stroke penalty?

Having not declared it unplayable before lifting the ball, it would not be acceptable to act under Rule 28 at that point. However, having not played the ball, all is not lost. The fact that it has been lifted when not permitted by a Rule, the ball can be replaced under penalty of one stroke in both match play and stroke play. Please see Rule 18-2(i).

Had the ball been played from a new position, then yes, loss of hole (or two strokes in Stroke Play) would have applied for a breach of Rule 18-2.


May a bottle top be used as a tee?

Not sure as to why one would want to do this, but it has been researched and found to be against the Rules. 

The use of a bottle top as a tee is outside the Rules because it fails the two tests of unusual manner of use and design.

Rule 14-3 reads:

‘Except as provided in the Rules, during a stipulated round the player must not use any equipment in an unusual manner that might assist him in making a stroke or in his play.’

Equipment is defined as ‘anything used, worn or carried by the player‘. So a bottle top is “Equipment” for the purposes of the Rule.

Appendix IV defines tees as devices ‘designed to raise the ball off the ground‘ which bottle tops are not.

More interesting information from the R&A on the subject can be read by clicking here.


If a player's ball is on the Putting Green, may relief be taken from a plugged hole (that is sitting proud of the Putting Green surface)?

If it is a wooden or artificial plug, it is an Obstruction and relief may be taken under Rule 24-2b(iii). If it just raised or low turf, the plug may be repaired under Rule 16-1c.  If it cannot be repaired, the player may discontinue play and request the Committee to repair the plug.  The Committee has the right to declare the plug as Ground Under Repair if it cannot be repaired without delaying play.  If this is the case, the player would then be entitled to relief under Rule 25-1b(iii)


Earlier this year a Local Rule was invoked at our club for an area of flaxes on the course.  The Local Rule is worded as follows: 

Formed Gardens
These formed gardens are Ground Under Repair and are an Abnormal Ground Condition:
Flax gardens on Hole 4 and 5 - Drop Zones

If you hit your ball into the Flax on Hole 4 or 5 you MUST take a free drop in the nearest drop zone.
Note: It is not necessary to find the ball as long as it is known or virtually certain that the ball is in the flax. You would drop into the nearest drop zone from point of entry.

I have been asked for a ruling on the following:

A player's ball was not in the Flax garden, but in order to play the next stroke the player's stance was in the Flax garden.  Can the player take normal relief under Rule 25-1, or must the drop zone be used if relief is taken?

The Formed Gardens are declared as Ground Under Repair, but the Flax area on Hole 4 and 5 has a specific Local Rule that starts with "If you hit your ball into the Flax...", which technically means it does not apply to a ball sitting outside the flax.  Then again, perhaps the ball went into the flax and out again, which means it does apply.   The main issue is in the wording of the Local Rule. It is very important to avoid ambiguity, and for that reason Part B of Appendix 1 in the Rule book has Specimen Local Rules that Committees should refer to when setting Local Rules.

Without knowing the exact intention of the Local Rule it is hard to advise fully, but if the intention was to stop players from making stroke that will potentially damage an area deemed to require preservation, the following Local Rule wording is advised (as per Specimen Local Rule 2 in part B of Appendix 1 in the Rule Book).

"The area of flax gardens on Hole 4 and 5 is ground under repair from which play is prohibited. If a player's ball lies in this area, or if it interferes with the player's stance or the area of intended swing, the player must drop the ball in the nearest dropping zone."

Generally, dropping zones should be provided as optional relief and the player should be able to proceed as appropriate under the Rules, but the Committee has that discretion.

It should not be necessary to reiterate the procedure for a ball lost in ground under repair as part of the Local Rule. Rule 6.1 states it is the player's responsibility to know the Rules.

Your Referee's Association is able to provide advice on Local Rule wording prior to it being published at a Club.


In a recent round of our Women's Club Championship Plate, two players completed a match 'off the stick' instead of applying the handicap allowance that Player B should have received. Player A won the match, but once it came to light that Player B should have received 10 strokes, Player A felt bad about the result and she conceded the match the Player B.

Is the concession permitted? 

Player A cannot concede a match that has already completed (See Rule 2-4)

No handicaps were declared at the start of the match, so Player B in effect declared a handicap lower than the 10 shots she was entitled to - which is permitted (see Rule 6-2a). 

Player A won the match and should progress to the next round. 


A player was seen to knock down some leaves during a practice swing for a stroke to be played under a tree. Nothing was said to the player at the time, and the card was signed and handed in. A Fellow Competitor mentioned the situation to the Committee and the matter was investigated. Even by examining the scene, it was not possible to determine the number of leaves that had been knocked down.  Is the Committee permitted to impose a 2-stroke penalty on the player even though the results have been posted on the Notice board?

If a Fellow Competitor has an issue with the actions of another player, it should be raised with them at the time. This sort of situation is almost impossible to deal with after the event, as the scene of the incident could have been changed by other players since the incident occured.

Just seeing some leaves falling does not mean a breach of the Rules has occurred. Was the Fellow Competitor in a position to clearly see the practice swing?  Was the practice swing taken slightly to one side of the area of intended swing?  Even if the practice swing was on the area of intended swing, Decision 13-2/0.5 clarifies the word "improve" in relation to Rule 13-2. In some cases knocking down a few leaves may not give the player any advantage. In other cases, knocking down one leaf may improve the area of intended swing.

The Committee needs to re-examine the site and make a ruling as to whether knocking down a few leaves would make a difference, and they should confirm with the player as to whether the practice swing was on the line of intended swing.  


A player repaired a pitch mark (off the putting green) about 12 inches (30cm) behind his ball. How far away from where a ball lies does a pitch mark have to be to not become a part of the intended swing path?

There are no firm guidelines on the distance. There is potential of mental interference even if the club does not touch the pitchmark on the backswing, so players are advised to not repair any pitchmarks (off the putting green) until they have played their next stroke.  There are occasions when the player will be given the benefit of the doubt, but without being there to assess the situation, it is almost impossible to make a ruling.


Is it permissable for a player to mark and lift a ball on the putting green more than once during the play of a hole?

Rule 20-1 covers the act of marking and lifting. As long as the process is followed correctly each time, there is nothing in the Rules limiting the number of times this can be done.  However, an excessive number of times could result in a breach of Rule 6-7.


Q. If a ball is seen to enter a bunker but disappears under the sand after impact, what are the player's options? Is anyone allowed to move sand to locate the ball?

A player is permitted to identify a ball in a hazard even if it means probing for the ball with a club or otherwise. See Rule 12-1.

If the ball cannot be found in a bunker it is a lost ball and the player must proceed under stroke and distance.

A Fellow Competitor can also join the search (including probing with a club) as long as their ball is not also in the same or similar hazard at that time.

By definition, a Partner (foursomes, best ball and four-ball) is an extension of the player, so he can also search for the ball.

An Opponent can also search.

If the ball is moved by anyone during the search, there is no penalty (see Rule 12-1a) and the ball must be replaced.

Once found and before the stroke is made, the ball should be re-covered with sand with just a small part of the ball showing so the player can see its position.


Q.  On the putting green, a player replaces his ball but leaves the marker in position.  A gust of wind then moves the ball. Can the player replace the ball in front of the marker, or does it have to be played from the new position?

A.  Decision 20-4/1 covers this.  The ball is in play when it is replaced and at rest regardless of whether the ball marker is still behind the ball.  If the ball subsequently moves due to wind or slope of the putting green, the ball should be played from its new position.

If the player replaces the ball where the marker is and completes the hole, a two stroke penalty is incurred.

If the player gained a signifcant advantage by playing from the ball marker instead of its new position, the error must be corrected by replacing the ball at the new position and completing the hole. The two stroke penalty still applies. If this is not done before the player makes a stroke from the next teeing ground, he is disqualified.


Q.  Our Club has a Local Rule defining bare ground to be an Abnormal Ground Condition from which relief is granted under Rule 25-1.  My ball was on a pile of loose impediments within an area of bare ground. Should I get relief as there was bare ground under the loose impediments?

A.  Normally, if the ball or the player's stance is in or touching an Abnormal Ground Condition, relief would be granted (even if the ball is off the ground).  However, the issue here is with the Local Rule.  It's another case of a club wanting to appease members by making the game a little easier with an unauthorised Local Rule (see Hit & Myths section for other examples). 

Bare ground is part of the game - it is not an Abnormal Ground Condition.  Clubs have strict parameters around the Local Rules that can be introduced and anything outside of those parameters must be authorised by the Ruling body (ie. R&A or USGA).   Those Ruling bodies will never accept a Local Rule granting relief from all bare ground.

Sometimes there are specific areas of bare ground caused by machinery, and even some around areas of newly laid turf - but such areas should be defined with white paint so Rule 25-1 can be applied.

Should a club choose to introduce such a Local Rule, a decision on a dispute such as yours can never be made outside of the Club as it would be rejected by any higher authority under the last paragraph of Rule 34-3. The club must decide the outcome of the dispute internally as only they know the true intention of the Local Rule (in your case is it for a ball directly on bare ground, or a ball in an area of bare ground).

The Referee's Association is available to help clubs with wording and advice on Local Rules that will ensure the game is played within the same rules by everyone.


Q.  After playing 15 holes in a club competition, Player A is asked by the Fellow Competitors in his group to drop back and play with the group behind.  The other players felt his inferior skill level was affecting the concentration of Player B who had the opportunity to break the course record.  Player A obliged.  Was there a breach of the Rules and if so by whom?

A.  If groups have been arranged by the committee, Rule 6-3b requires the competitors to remain in those groups for the stiplulated round unless the Committee authorises a change.

Subsequently, Player A and all Fellow Competitors in the group that condoned this change are disqualified. It is the responsibility of all players to know the Rules, so ignorance of 6-3b is not an excuse to avoid the penalty.

The reasoning behind this group change is so against the spirit of the game, it should have been denied even if they had made contact with a Committee member to seek a change.

If the Group behind were not part of the discussion on the change of groups, and they picked up Player A as they reached the next teeing ground, the Committee should ratify the change to that following group, which means all players in that following group (other than Player A) would not be disqualified.


Q.  If the Conditions of Competition state that players may not use transportation, can a player's caddie use a cart to carry the clubs as long as the player does not ride in the cart?

A. No, a caddie will need his own medical exemption certificate.  This will allow him to ride with the clubs but the player cannot ride unless he too has an exemption.

If a player has the medical exemption and employs a caddie without an exemption, the caddie must carry the clubs and the transportation can only be used to carry the player.

Decision 33-1/9.5 supports this.


Q. I witnessed several players at a tournament grounding their putter on the line of putt whilst assessing their putt. Is this permitted?

A. Rule 16-1a states that the Line of Putt cannot be touched, but lists 7 exceptions.  It is a common sight for players to stand part-way along the line of putt and simulate the putting stroke from that point as part of the process of working out the overall line of putt.  To do this within the Rules, the simulated stroke must be made above the surface of the putting green.  A breach of Rule 16-1a occurs if the player grounds his club on the line of putt prior to or during the simulation.  A penalty of two strokes in stroke play or loss of hole in match-play should be applied for each infringement. 

This is not to be confused with simulating the stroke next to or behind the ball prior to a putt. That is not on the line of putt so there is no breach.


Q. In match play, if an opponent does not mark his ball, is it permissible for a player to purposely aim for that ball, if he felt it to be advantageous in some way.

A. There must have been interesting matches back in the day with the Stymie rule in play.  Even though stymies are long gone, the fact that there is still no penalty for striking an opponent's ball on the green is based on retaining elements of the old form of the game.
If Player A in a match chooses to not mark his ball, there is nothing stopping Player B from taking dead aim at that ball.  If the ball is moved, Player A would replace his ball and Player B would play from the position his ball comes to rest.  If Player B holes a stroke that deflects off his opponent's ball, that is his good fortune.

Player B has no right to ask Player A to leave his ball in play, but does have the right to ask it to be lifted.


Q. What is the procedure if a ball is stuck up a tree?

A. Assuming the base of the tree is not within Ground Under Repair, or that the ball is not within the margins of a Water Hazard, the ball needs to be found and identified otherwise it is lost, and stroke and distance will apply under Rule 27.

The player may climb the tree or even use binoculars if readily available to spot the identification mark on the ball.  If the ball is identified and not playable, the player should declare it unplayable and proceed under Rule 28.  The reference point for option 28c (two clublength option) is the point on the ground directly under where the ball lies in the tree.  The player may substitute the ball when proceeding under Rule 28, so there is no need to retrieve the ball as long as it has been identified.

It is important that the ball is declared unplayable before it is dislodged by any direct action (such as shaking the tree or throwing a club at it).   If it is not declared unplayable first and the ball moves due to a direct action, the player incurs a penalty of one shot for moving a ball in play and at rest.  Normally the ball would have to be replaced, but under these circumstances the player may proceed with the unplayable ball rule with the additional penalty stroke under Rule 28.

If it is known or virtually certain that the ball is lost in a tree and the calculated position of the ball is also within the margins of a Water Hazard, the player must proceed under Rule 26.

If the ball is found and identified in a tree of which the trunk lies entirely or partially within the margins of Ground Under Repair, the player may proceed without penalty under Rule 25-1b.  The reference point is the point on the ground directly under where the ball lies in the tree.  A ball may be substituted if not immediately recoverable.

If the ball is not found or identified, but is known or virtually certain to be in a tree of which the trunk lies entirely or partially within the margins of Ground Under Repair, the player may proceed under Rule 25-1c.


Q. My ball went into the hazard, whilst certain it went in I played a provisional in the event it was lost. We found the ball in the hazard marked by yellow stakes. I continued to play the provisional ball believing it to be the now playable ball of which I would have chosen to return to the last spot to play the ball from the hazard anyway. This saved time. Was this the correct ruling or was I supposed to return and play another ball deeming the provisional ball to be void?

A. It comes down to the definition of a Provisional Ball in the front of the Rule book.

"A provisional ball is a ball played under Rule 27-2 for a ball that may be lost outside a Water Hazard or may be out of bounds"

From your statement it appears you were virtually certain the ball went into the Water hazard. So using the definition above, you are not entitled to play a provisional ball, you can only act under the Water Hazard rule. When you dropped another ball (or teed up another ball), even though you may well have said "provisional ball", it was not the case. Your action with the other ball is deemed to be you acting under the Water Hazard rule by playing a stroke from where the previous stroke was made (Rule 26-1a). So yes, you have done the right thing by continuing with that ball, even though your assumption was that you were continuing with your Provisional Ball. The trouble would have started if you had dropped the original ball out of the Water Hazard.

Let me change the scenario slightly. If you believed that the ball you hit towards the water hazard may or may not have reached the hazard, and that there is a possibility of the ball being lost outside of the hazard, you can play a Provisional Ball. Then, if you find your original ball in the hazard, the provisional ball is no longer an option. Consider it picked up. You now have the normal choices under the water hazard rule. If you wish to go back to the place where the last stroke you made - go for it, but forget the Provisional Ball. If you continue with the Provisional Ball in this case, you have played a wrong ball and incur a two stroke penalty. You then have to correct the error by proceeding under the Water Hazard Rule with respect to the original ball.