Rules and the 2016 USGA Open Championships December 21, 2016 By Jamie Wallace, USGA

The Rules of Golf are adhered to by competitors at all levels of the game, including the best players in the world. (USGA/JD Cuban)

With the 2016 USGA championship season behind us, let’s take a look at the data to see which Rules competitors in our Open championships encountered most frequently this year. The figures cited below include the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle, and the 2016 U.S. Senior Open at Scioto Country Club.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the Rules and Decisions golfers from around the country reached out to us the most frequently about throughout the year.

Every time a referee is called in to assist a player for any reason, it is recorded as a “ruling.” In 2016, there were a total of 270 rulings during the U.S. Open, 329 during the U.S. Women’s Open, and 245 during the U.S. Senior Open.

The most notable rulings aren’t necessarily the most common. For instance, the situation at Oakmont, in which Dustin Johnson’s golf ball moved on the fifth green on Sunday, involved Rule 18-2. Certainly, the ruling sparked a lot of discussion and controversy throughout the golf world, but Rule 18-2 did not make the list of the most common Rules applied during USGA Open championships in 2016. The same goes for Rule 13-4, the relevant Rule when Anna Nordqvist’s club touched the sand in a bunker in the playoff at the U.S. Women’s Open this year.

The Rule that our referees were called in to assist with the most frequently in 2016 was Rule 26 – Water Hazards. This will usually involve relief procedures from either a regular (yellow) water hazard or a lateral (red) water hazard. In addition to playing a ball in a water hazard as it lies, the player has the following options for relief from a yellow water hazard:

  • Proceed under stroke and distance by dropping a ball at the spot of the previous stroke.
  • Determine the spot where the ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard and then drop a ball on a straight line from the flagstick through that spot going back as far as the player would like.

For a ball in a lateral (red) water hazard, a player has the options above, plus the following additional options:

  • Drop within two club lengths of and not nearer the hole than the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard.
  • Drop within two club lengths of and not nearer the hole than the point on the opposite margin of the water hazard that is equidistant from the hole.


The second-most frequently cited Rule this year was Rule 24 – Obstructions. An obstruction is any artificial object found on a golf course, and they can be either movable or immovable. An obstruction is movable if it can be moved without unreasonable effort, unduly delaying play, or causing damage. Thus, objects like water bottles, scorecards and rakes are movable obstructions, while objects like sprinkler heads, cart paths and permanent buildings are immovable. Under the Rules of Golf, free relief is granted for interference by obstructions, which can either mean removing a movable obstruction or using the nearest point of relief to take a drop away from an immovable obstruction. A player is granted relief from an immovable obstruction when their ball lies on the obstruction or the obstruction interferes with the player’s stance or the area of their swing. Relief is not provided if the obstruction is simply on a player’s line of play, except when the ball lies on the putting green or when dealing with a temporary immovable obstruction, or TIO (which is discussed in more detail below).



The third-most frequent Rules situation this year involved something recreational golfers almost never experience – temporary immovable obstructions. These are temporary objects that are not normally found on a golf course, including things like grandstands, television towers and concession stands. They have their own relief procedures, found in Appendix I in the Rules of Golf. Notably, relief is granted for interference by a TIO on a player’s line of play, not just for interference with stance or swing, as is the case with regular immovable obstructions.

The fourth-most frequent Rule cited this year was Rule 25 – Abnormal Ground Conditions, Embedded Ball and Wrong Putting Green. Under Rule 25, the most common rulings involve free relief for embedded golf balls, casual water, ground under repair, or burrowing animal holes.

Though it is not a very common occurence, here's a classic look at a situation involving Tiger Woods and a wrong putting green during the 2002 Ryder Cup.

It is important to note that these numbers can vary year to year based on the type of golf course played – for example, one that has numerous water hazards, frequent out of bounds, or lots of long grass and vegetation. The diverse 2017 Open championship venues, including the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, should make for intriguing year-to-year comparisons.  

Jamie Wallace is the manager of Rules Education and Digital Content. Email him at jwallace@usga.org.