Course Conditions and the New Rules Of Golf April 18, 2019 By George Waters, USGA

Loose impediments such as leaves and sticks may now be moved in bunkers, making life easier for golfers and superintendents. (USGA/Chris Keane)

Applying the Rules of Golf to the dynamic landscape of a golf course is always going to present some challenges. Recognizing this fact, some of the recent changes to the Rules were designed specifically to address common course conditions, and to provide facilities with greater flexibility in how courses are maintained and set up. This flexibility can translate into more efficient golf course management and a better golf experience for all of us.

Moving loose impediments in a bunker is now permitted.

In the past, you were not allowed to touch or move loose impediments in bunkers except to find your ball. This included stones, leaves, sticks and any other natural objects. The restriction on moving loose impediments created some potentially frustrating situations for golfers and put pressure on superintendents to keep bunkers free of debris, which is very costly and almost impossible to achieve at certain times of year.

Finding stones in a bunker is a common occurrence at many golf courses, including some of the world’s best. USGA agronomist Paul Jacobs visits golf courses that have struggled with stones in bunker sand and hears concerns from golfers on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the options for addressing this situation are limited.

“Once stones are present in bunker sand, it is almost impossible to completely remove them without an expensive bunker renovation project that can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Jacobs. “That is simply out of reach for many golf facilities. It’s also unnecessary if the stones are having a relatively minor impact on playability.”

While there was a Local Rule that allowed golfers to move stones in bunkers, many facilities did not utilize the Local Rule and many golfers were not necessarily aware whether that option was available at the course they were playing. The resulting confusion led to playability concerns and potential Rules infractions.

Jamie Wallace, the USGA’s manager of Rules education and digital content, explains how the new rule is different:

“Under the new Rules of Golf, all loose impediments, including stones, can be removed from a bunker at any time. There is no need for a Local Rule. However, you still need to be careful when removing a loose impediment in a bunker as a penalty will apply if you cause your ball to move.”

Jacobs sees benefits for golfers and superintendents with this change. “Even when the maintenance staff cleans bunkers in the morning, debris may collect throughout the day. This change in the Rules gives golfers added flexibility to address these situations, which leads to better playability and allows the superintendent to allocate resources more efficiently.”

Areas of naturalized rough can now be identified as penalty areas, giving golfers more relief options for a lost ball. (USGA/Chris Keane)

Penalty areas provide greater flexibility for play, maintenance and setup.

Under the old Rules of Golf, an area had to contain water or at least hold water sometimes to be classified as a water hazard. This definition excluded many areas of a golf course where balls are commonly lost, such as areas of tall grass or deserts. However, many courses marked these areas as hazards anyway, and many golfers played them as hazards regardless of how they were marked.

“The new Rules introduce the concept of penalty areas, which can be marked almost anywhere on the course,” says Wallace. “Previously, if a golfer lost a ball in an area of long grass, they were required to play another ball from the spot of their previous stroke. Now, if that area is marked as a penalty area and the golfer knows their ball is lost there, they have more relief options.”

Not only can naturalized areas, forests and deserts be marked as penalty areas under the new Rules, they don’t actually have to be marked at all. Physical features can now be used to define a penalty area instead of a painted line or stakes. For example, a golf course could state that all areas of naturalized rough should be treated as a red-marked penalty area. This eliminates the setup and maintenance costs involved with marking the edges of large penalty areas.

In addition to greater flexibility for defining and marking a penalty area, golfers have more freedom when playing from these areas. Under the new Rules, loose impediments can now be moved in a penalty area, and golfers may ground their club behind the ball or take practice swings that touch the ground. These options were not available in a water hazard under the old Rules.

More damage can be repaired on putting greens.

In the past, only ball marks and old hole plugs could be repaired on the putting green. Unfortunately, many other types of damage can occur to putting greens throughout any given day. Being unable to repair these issues often interfered with playability and created frustration. Now, golfers can repair almost any damage on the putting green, including damage caused by shoes, animals or maintenance practices.

Larry Gilhuly has been a USGA agronomist for more than 35 years, and he often hears golfers express concern about how putting green conditions change throughout the day.

“No matter how well-prepared putting greens may be in the morning, some disruption inevitably occurs during the course of the day,” explains Gilhuly. “Scuffs from golf shoes are a perfect example. In the past, those scuffs were not allowed to be repaired and one person’s mistake could create a playability issue for many other golfers that day.”

Being able to repair more damage to the putting greens gives golfers a better experience throughout the day, but it is important to avoid doing more harm than good. If golfers discover damage that is not easy to repair, they should inform the golf shop or the maintenance staff so that the problem can be fixed properly.

“People shouldn’t expect putting conditions to be exactly the same throughout the day,” said Gilhuly, “but allowing golfers to fix some common damage on the putting green is going to help them have more fun and make the superintendent’s life a little easier.”

The changes made to the Rules of Golf were designed to make them easier to understand and easier to apply. The new Rules are also intended to reflect the realities of how the game is played today. The changes discussed above are good examples of these goals in action, and there should be increasing benefits for golfers and facilities as familiarity with the new Rules grows. To learn more, visit the Rules section of

George Waters is the manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at