If a penalty area has no markings – can you get free relief?

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You’ve looked around and there are no lines or stakes to be seen. So how do you know it’s a penalty area? Our Rules of Golf guru is here to help

Red or yellow. Lines or stakes. We usually know with a glance whether we’re in a penalty area or not. But what if it’s not defined?

What if your ball is in a burn, or a pond, and there is nothing to indicate it’s a penalty area? What if there’s not a marker in sight? Are you actually in one? Can you get free relief? Let’s get stuck in.

Rules of Golf explained: How do I know if this is a penalty area?

Let’s assume that where your ball has ended up isn’t the focus of a Local Rule or hasn’t been defined as part of the general area.

If that’s the case, the following may surprise some of you. It’s in the definitions so feel free to have a look yourselves to check it out.

Ready? Any body of water on the course is a penalty area. That’s the case whether or not it is marked by the committee.

So what counts? Well, all kinds of things. Obvious ones like a lake, a pond, a river, even the sea. But this also applies to a ditch, a surface drainage ditch, or another open watercourse – even if it doesn’t contain water!

A penalty area is also any other part of the course the committee decide to defines as such.

Now, it ought to be marked. The definition says the edge of a penalty area “should be defined by stakes, lines or physical features”.

But what if it isn’t and you decide you want to take penalty relief? Firstly, what colour is it? It’s red and you’ll have three relief options open to you.

Secondly, how would you know where the edge was?

The definition of penalty area comes to the fore again. It says when the edge of a body of water isn’t defined by a committee, “the edge of that penalty area is defined by its natural boundaries (that is, where the ground slopes down to form the depression that can hold the water).”

The Rules take penalty areas pretty seriously. In addition to this definition, and Rule 17, in the Official Guide to the Rules of Golf, the Committee procedures include five pages on how to set up penalty areas, and how they are marked and defined. Give it a read.

Have a question for our Rules of Golf expert?

Despite the simplification of the Rules of Golf at the beginning of 2019, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. And as I’ve passed the R&A’s level 2 rules exam with distinction, I am more than happy to help.

If you’ve sent me an email and are yet to hear back from me, I will try to answer your query. I’m still inundated with requests and trying to get through them.

Just to reiterate, I continue to receive emails from players hoping I can intervene in a club rules dispute. For fairly obvious reasons, I can’t do that and would direct those players either to their county or to the rules department at the R&A for a definitive judgement.

Click here for the full Rules of Golf explained archive and details of how to submit a question to our expert.

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