Rules of Golf explained: My ball’s embedded in the face of a bunker – can I get free relief?

Steve Carroll explains what you should do if you find yourself in a similar situation to Ian Poulter at the Scottish Open

Golf is hard. We know this every time we tee up. But, sometimes, even the world’s best struggle.

So Ian Poulter’s attempt to get out of a fairway bunker on the 1st hole at Renaissance, in the final round of last week’s Scottish Open, was a situation many of us hacks know only too well.

He drove his iron straight into the lip of the bunker and embedded the ball tightly into the grass.

It was an awful spot and Poulter took relief from the horror lie. A quick scan of social media revealed plenty were confused as to why he got a free drop. But never fear, I’m here to explain…

Rules of Golf explained: Our expert says…

It might seem to your eye that Poulter’s in the bunker – the ball is in the lip of the trap, right?

But, in the definitions, a bunker is “a specially prepared area of sand, which is often a hollow from which turf or soil was removed”.

This, among other things, is not part of a bunker: “A lip, wall or face at the edge of a prepared area and consisting of soil, grass, stacked turf or artificial materials”.

Anything that isn’t the teeing area a player starts a hole from, a penalty area, the green of the hole that’s being played or a bunker is classed as part of the general area.

And thanks to Rule 16.3, free relief is allowed when a player’s ball is embedded in the general area.

That’s classed as when “it is in its own pitch-mark made a result of the player’s previous stroke, and part of the ball is below the level of the ground”.

I think we can all agree Poulter’s ball was definitely that.

How does he go about taking relief? Rule 16.3b says the reference point is the spot right behind where the ball is embedded.

“A ball must be dropped in and come to rest in the relief area. The relief area is one club-length from the reference point, is not nearer to the hole than the reference point and must be in the general area”.

All straightforward enough and it’s where this story ended for Poulter. But what if things hadn’t gone to plan? What if, for example, his drop fell into the bunker?

Let’s turn to Rule 14. We know when a player drops a ball it has to come to rest in the relief area. If it doesn’t, Rule 14.3c (2) says a player must drop the ball in the right way a second time.

If it still refuses to yield, the player must then “place a ball on the spot where the ball dropped the second time first touched the ground”.

If it won’t stay at rest there, the ball is placed on that spot a second time. And if, after all that, it still won’t behave, “the player must place a ball on the nearest spot where the ball will stay at rest, subject to the limits in Rule 14.2e”.

Doesn’t that have to be in the relief area?

An interpretation to Rule 14.3c (2) covers this. It says: “If a player must complete the dropping procedure by placing a ball… this might result in the player placing the ball outside the relief area.

“For example, if the player drops the ball for a second time in the right way near the edge of the relief area and it comes to rest outside the relief area, he or she must place a ball on the spot it first touched the ground after the second drop.

“But, if the placed ball does not stay on that spot after two attempts, the nearest spot not nearer the hole where the ball will stay at rest might be inside or outside the relief area.”

If the only place where the ball will remain at rest is nearer the hole, though, you’ll have to take penalty relief.

And don’t be tempted to push the ball into the ground to ensure it stays on a spot. That’s a breach of Rule 8.2b and you’ll be hit with a two-stroke sanction in stroke play (loss of hole in match play).

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.

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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