Rules Guy: Is it a penalty to smooth bunker sand with your foot if the ball goes back in?

golfer in bunker

What do the rules say about smoothing the sand after a shot when your ball then rolls back in?

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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.

I was at the bottom of a steep greenside bunker. Immediately after hitting my shot, I smoothed the sand with my foot — only to then look up to see the ball hadn’t cleared the trap and was rolling back to me. Of course, it stopped exactly in the spot I’d smoothed. Was this a penalty? — Tom Metzner, via email

Loyal readers of Rules Guy know that, in addition to favoring the third-person plural when referencing ourselves, we often underscore the notion that being aware of what’s going on around you, like knowing the Rules of Golf, generally works to one’s advantage … except, that is, when the opposite is true.

This is a case of the latter. Firstly, were the ball outside the bunker when you were smoothing, there is no issue at all, even when the ball is going to roll back into the bunker. Now, when the ball is indeed in the bunker, regardless of whether it ever left, things can change.

If you smoothed the sand deliberately to affect the ball in motion, that would be the general penalty of two strokes in stroke play or loss of hole in match play under Rule 11.3.

If, however, you were blissfully unaware and simply smoothing to care for the course, there is no penalty involved, skirting the prohibitions under Rule 12.2b.

bunker splash
Rules Guy: Is there a penalty for accidentally hitting a buried ball in a bunker?
By: Rules Guy

For more bunker-related guidance from our guru, read on …

My ball is behind a bunker that I have to play over in order to reach the green. The bunker hasn’t been raked by a previous player, with many footprints and a big divot. Can I rake the bunker prior to my shot in case that’s where my ball winds up?
—Tim Harmer,

Wendouree, VIC, Australia

Optimism isn’t exactly your long suit, is it, Tim? Alas and alack, under Rule 8.1a(3) you’re not allowed to improve any bunker on your line of play by smoothing footprints or unraked areas. A breach gets you the general penalty of two strokes in stroke play and loss of hole in match play.

Perhaps ironically, you can take care of a bunker that isn’t on your line of play to care for the course. Another thing you can do: Believe in yourself! Get that ball airborne and over the bunker, Tim! As the kids say, Let’s gooooo!

Need help unriddling the greens at your home course? Pick up a custom Green Book from 8AM Golf affiliate Golf Logix.

Got a question about the Rules? Ask the Rules Guy! Send your queries, confusions and comments to We promise he won’t throw the book at you.

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