Rules Guy: My ball plugged in the bank of an unmarked lake. Can I take free relief?

golfer next to water hazard

What do you do if your ball plugs in an area where water has naturally receded?

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The Rules of Golf are tricky! Thankfully, we’ve got the guru. Our Rules Guy knows the book front to back. Got a question? He’s got all the answers.

Playing with friends on a hot summer day, my drive plugged next to a penalty area where there would have been water if not for evaporation. The waterline was 10 feet away, and there were no penalty area stakes or painted lines. I say I’m lifting my ball, cleaning it, fixing the plug, then replacing the ball where the plug was. My friends say if I lift the ball, I lose the hole. Who’s right? —Bob Pearson, Louisville, KY

We say none of you is right. (Yes, that’s correct — Grammar Gal proofreads all.)

First question: Is the ball in a penalty area or not? By definition, if it was an open water course it was a penalty area; when not defined by the Committee, the default is the natural boundary edge of the feature that normally contains water.

From your description, it sounds like the ball was within that boundary. If it is, then your friends were correct that you couldn’t lift the ball and take embedded ball relief. That said, lifting a ball alone isn’t the general penalty (in match play, loss of hole), it’s one penalty stroke, under Rule 9.4. You wouldn’t lose the hole until you put the ball back down somewhere else and played from there, thereby playing from the wrong place (see Rule 14.7). This would happen as a result of fixing the plug since vertical location is included when replacing a ball on a spot.

But the procedure you describe would never be allowed either because even if the ball was outside the penalty area and entitled to free relief for the embedded ball, the procedure under Rule 16.3 is to drop a ball in a relief area based on the nearest spot in the general area immediately behind where the ball was embedded — not lift, repair and place.

Rules Guy pond
Rules Guy: Is unstaked water still considered a hazard?
By: Rules Guy

For more water-hazard guidance from our guru, read on …

I recently played a round of golf following a powerful rainstorm. On one hole, a pond overflowed by six feet. Unfortunately, my ball landed five feet from the pond’s normal edge and sat in three inches of water. Do I get a free drop for casual water or a penalty?
—Richard Wolf, via email

Richard, in terms of good fortune, truly your cup runneth over.

Any water that has overflowed the edge of the penalty area, whether it’s defined by stakes or lines, is treated as temporary water, so you do indeed get to take free relief. Squish onward!

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