We get it–golf has a lot of rules. Golf’s complexity is part of the reason why it’s so fun to play. In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into the most common golf penalties and the specific rules they apply to. Be sure to study up so you can avoid getting penalty strokes added the next time your foursome hits the links.
What is a Golf Penalty?
A penalty is imposed on a golfer for violating the rules of the game (as dictated by the USGA) or something players can voluntarily receive if they deem a ball unplayable (relief). Penalties are designed to ensure fair play and maintain the integrity of the competition. There are various types of penalties in golf, ranging from hitting the ball out of bounds to improving the lie of the ball.
The number of penalty strokes varies depending on the specific rule violation and whether you’re playing an official tournament or just a few rounds with your friends. No matter the scenario, however, golf is a self-policing game, meaning players are responsible for knowing and adhering to the rules. As a golfer, you need to be familiar with the rules of golf to avoid penalties and play the game in a fair and sportsmanlike manner.
Complete List of Golf Penalties
Ready to dive in? Here are some of the most common golf penalties you’ll encounter when playing. There are a ton of common golf terms used below, so don’t forget to brush up on Stix’s Glossary of Golf Terms.
Wrong Score (Rule 3)
Recording an incorrect score in golf can lead to various penalties depending on the nature and severity of the error. The specific penalties are outlined in Rule 3, which deals with scoring and the player's responsibility to hole out, record, and return the scorecard correctly.
If you return a scorecard with a hole score lower than the actual score taken on any hole, there are several potential penalties.
Score Lower than Actual Score
If you return a score lower than your actual score for any hole, the score for that hole is considered as recorded, and you will incur a penalty. The penalty for each hole is either the number of penalty strokes actually taken on that hole or two strokes, whichever is higher.
Hole Score Omitted
If a hole score is omitted from the scorecard, you will generally be disqualified from the competition. However, this disqualification penalty may be waived in certain circumstances, such as when the omission is a result of failure to include one or more penalty strokes.
Playing with More Than 14 Clubs (Rule 4)
Players are limited to carrying and using a maximum of 14 clubs during a round. If a player exceeds this limit, there is a penalty. If you realize you have more than 14 clubs during play, you should rectify the situation as soon as possible to minimize the penalty strokes.
The penalty for playing with more than 14 clubs is assessed per hole during which the excess clubs are carried or used. The general rule is that for each hole where a player carries or uses more than 14 clubs, they incur a penalty of two strokes. For example, if a player starts a round with 15 clubs in their bag and uses that extra club on four holes during the round, they would incur a total penalty of eight strokes (2 strokes x 4 holes).
Playing from the Wrong Teeing Area (Rule 6)
If a player tees off from a teeing area that is ahead of and closer to the hole than the specified teeing area for that hole, they incur a penalty of two strokes. The player must then play the ball from the correct teeing area.
If a player tees off from a teeing area that is behind and farther from the hole than the specified teeing area for that hole, there is no penalty. The player can play the ball from the correct teeing area without penalty.
Improving the Lie (Rule 8)
Improving the lie of your ball by altering the conditions affecting the stroke is generally prohibited. The penalty for improving the lie depends on the specific circumstances and the intent of the player. Generally, players incur a two-stroke penalty for improving the lie of their ball. In official tournaments, however, improving the lie can result in disqualification.
Examples of actions that could result in a penalty for improving the lie include:
- Moving or bending a branch, boundary stake, or any other object that could affect the lie of the ball.
- Altering the ground (e.g., smoothing a bunker) to create a more favorable lie.
- Pressing down grass, removing loose impediments, or altering the surface to make it easier to play the shot.
Ball Moves After Address (Rule 9)
The penalty for the ball moving after address depends on whether the player caused the ball to move or if it moved for reasons unrelated to the player's actions.
If a player causes their ball to move after taking their stance and addressing it, the player incurs a one-stroke penalty, and the ball must be replaced to its original position. If the ball moves after address and the player did not cause it to move, there is no penalty if the movement is due to natural forces, like wind or gravity.
Anchoring the Club (Rule 10)
Anchoring the club refers to a putting technique where the player stabilizes or "anchors" the putter against a part of their body during the putting stroke. The United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A) introduced a rule in 2016 (and then revised the rule in 2019) that now prohibits anchoring the club when making a stroke. Players who anchor their club during a stroke will now incur a two-stroke penalty.
Grounding the Club in a Bunker (Rule 12)
According to Rule 12.2, a player must not touch the sand in the bunker with their hand, club, or any other object before making their stroke. So, if your club touches the sand in the bunker during your setup or practice swing, or if you deliberately touch the sand in the bunker with your club while addressing the ball, you’ll receive a two-stroke penalty.
However, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, players are allowed to touch the sand in a bunker incidentally while making a stroke, provided that the touching is not testing the condition of the sand or improving the lie, area of intended stance, swing, or line of play.
Failure to Mark Ball (Rule 14)
The penalty for failing to mark your ball spot after lifting it generally results in a one-stroke penalty. Here are some common scenarios where marking your ball is necessary.
On the Putting Green
If a player fails to mark their ball on the putting green before lifting it and cleaning it, the player incurs a one-stroke penalty.
Lifting for Identification
If a player lifts their ball to identify it (e.g., to determine if it's their ball), they are required to mark the spot first. Failure to do so may incur a one-stroke penalty.
Lifting for Relief
In certain situations, a player may lift their ball to take relief (e.g., from a movable obstruction or abnormal course condition). The player must mark the spot before lifting the ball. If the player fails to mark the spot before lifting, they incur a one-stroke penalty.
Caddy Lifts the Ball
If the caddy lifts the ball when they’re not allowed, the player will incur a one-stroke penalty (under Rule 9.4).
Playing from the Wrong Place (Rule 14)
Playing the ball from the wrong place is a serious infraction of the rules and incurs a penalty. The specific penalty for playing from the wrong place depends on the nature and context of the error. The primary rule that addresses playing from the wrong place is Rule 14, though Rule 17 also covers playing from the wrong place.
Here are the main scenarios and penalties related to playing from the wrong place:
Playing from the Wrong Place with No Penalty Applied
If a player plays from the wrong place but corrects the mistake before making a stroke to begin another hole, the player incurs no penalty.
Playing from the Wrong Place with a One-Stroke Penalty
If a player plays a stroke from the wrong place and does not correct the mistake before making a stroke to begin another hole, they incur a penalty of one stroke.
Playing from the Wrong Place with a Two-Stroke Penalty
If a player plays a stroke from the wrong place and fails to correct the mistake before the round is completed, they incur a penalty of two strokes.
In some cases, playing from the wrong place may result in disqualification if the error is considered a serious breach of the rules.
Ball Moves After Removal of Loose Impediment (Rule 15)
If a player removes loose impediment from anywhere on the course, other than the putting green, and the ball moves more than a club length as a result, the player incurs a one-stroke penalty, and the ball must be returned to its original spot. Loose impediment generally includes natural objects like stones, leaves, and branches.
Relief for Abnormal Course Conditions (Rule 16)
Abnormal course conditions consist of a variety of golf course features that are unintentional, such as temporary water, animal holes, immovable obstructions, and ground under repair. In situations where these conditions prevent a player from playing the ball, players can take relief without penalty.
To take relief, the player must choose a point of complete relief in the same general area, one club length away from the original spot. The ball must not be nearer to the hole than the reference point. Replacing the ball in the wrong spot usually constitutes a penalty as dictated by Rule 14 (Playing from the Wrong Place).
Hazards & Penalty Areas (Rule 17)
A hazard is an area on the golf course that is defined by yellow stakes or lines and can include bodies of water such as lakes, ponds, or streams, as well as other out-of-bounds areas. When taking relief from a hazard or penalty area, you’re not allowed to go on the opposite side of the hazard from where the ball entered. You have to stay on the same side as the point of entry and use one of the relief options mentioned below while taking a single-stroke penalty.
When your ball is in or has last crossed a hazard, you have several relief options under Rule 17.
Drop Behind the Hazard
You can drop the ball behind the penalty area, keeping the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped. There is no limit to how far behind the hazard you can drop the ball.
Play from Where the Ball Last Crossed the Hazard
You can replay the shot from the spot where the original ball last crossed the margin of the hazard. This is similar to the stroke and distance penalty.
Drop within Two Club Lengths
You can drop a ball within two club lengths of the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard, but not nearer to the hole.
Drop on a Line Backwards
You can drop the ball on a straight line extending backward from the hole, keeping the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped. The drop point can be as far back as you want.
Out of Bounds (Rule 18)
An out-of-bounds penalty occurs when your ball goes out of bounds (likely due to a hook or slice shot). Out-of-bounds areas are typically marked by white stakes, lines, or fences. If your ball comes to rest out of bounds, you’ll incur a single-stroke penalty. You’ll then play the next stroke from the spot where you played your last shot (stroke and distance penalty).
If you think your ball went out of bounds, you do have the option to play a provisional ball under a stroke and distance penalty before searching for your original ball. If you find your original ball, you must continue to play with it and not the provisional ball. If you don’t find the original ball, you can continue to play with the provisional ball, adding the appropriate penalty strokes.
Need help with your aim so you don’t go out of bounds? Check out our guide on Golf Alignment and Aiming!
Lost Ball (Rule 18)
The lost ball penalty in golf is covered under Rule 18 of the Rules of Golf. If you hit a ball into trees, high grass, or other hazards and it cannot be found within a search time of three minutes, the ball is considered lost. The penalty for a lost ball is stroke and distance, meaning you have to go back to the spot of your previous stroke and play another ball from there, incurring a one-stroke penalty.
If you think your ball may be lost, but you aren’t sure, you can play with a provisional ball like you would an out-of-bounds ball. The same rules apply where you must continue to play with the original ball if you find it.
Unplayable Lie (Rule 19)
This rule allows golfers to deem their ball unplayable in certain situations and provides the player with options for taking relief, each incurring a penalty of one stroke. The decision to declare a ball unplayable is at the discretion of the player, so you should carefully consider all your options before declaring an unplayable lie.
When taking relief for an unplayable ball, you can’t move the ball closer to the hole, and you have to drop the ball rather than tee it up. Additionally, if the ball was in a bunker when it became unplayable, you have to drop the ball back in the bunker.
The three options for dealing with an unplayable ball are:
Stroke and Distance
The player may go back to the spot of the previous stroke and play a ball from there. This is similar to the penalty for a lost ball or a ball hit out of bounds.
Drop Within Two Club Lengths
The player may drop the ball within two club lengths of the spot where the ball lay, but not nearer the hole. This option provides a lateral relief area.
Back on a Line
The player may go back on a line from the hole through the spot where the ball lay, as far back as they want. The spot where the ball is dropped must be in the same condition as the original lie.
Pro Tips for Penalty-Free Golf
Don’t let this exhaustive list deter you from hitting the links and playing a few rounds. Golf is a fun and relaxing way to get outside, exercise, and hang with friends–even during the wintertime.
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