Through the Green: A new look for the Rules of Golf


Filed to: Rules of Golf

In March, the USGA and R&A proposed an overhaul to the Rules of Golf, with a projected effective date of Jan. 1, 2019 for the changes. These important revisions are aimed at making the Rules easier to understand and apply while maintaining golf’s principles and character, and would mark the biggest Rules makeover since 1984.

In the proposal, the total number of rules would drop from 34 to 24, and the current manual used by officials, Decisions on the Rules of Golf, would be replaced by a handbook. Several of the changes would have a direct effect on the superintendent and course management. In this month’s column, I’ll focus on how the proposed changes to the Rules will affect course marking.

At present, many superintendents spend a lot of time marking water hazards, which also include lateral water hazards (Rule 26). In short, “water hazard” refers to any type of water body on the course (sea, ditch, drainage area, etc.), and water doesn’t have to be present all the time. Water hazards are marked with yellow stakes and/or painted lines, whereas lateral water hazards are marked with red stakes and/or painted lines. Lateral water hazards are defined as water hazards behind which it is not possible to drop a ball.

In the proposed revision to the Rules, the term “water hazards” is out and is replaced with “penalty areas,” which are defined as: 1) any body of water on the course (whether or not marked by the committee), including a sea, lake, pond, river, ditch, surface drainage ditch or other open watercourse (even if not containing water); and 2) any other part of the course the committee defines as a penalty area. Penalty areas will be marked yellow or red, just as water hazards and lateral water hazards are respectively marked under the current rules.

Most relevant to the superintendent in this definition is that areas of the course other than those previously considered water hazards could be designated as penalty areas. According to the USGA, “penalty areas may include areas such as deserts, jungles, lava rock fields, etc.” The forthcoming handbook will provide recommended guidelines for identifying these areas.

The use of penalty areas should help speed pace of play. Once the penalty area option becomes available, the golfer won’t have to play a provisional ball or have to search should the ball end up in one of these areas. Instead, the golfer can proceed under a penalty of 1 stroke using the same procedures that are currently in place for water hazards and lateral water hazards.

That said, a course’s committee could get carried away with the marking of penalty areas. Ultimately, the most sensible approach would be to identify areas of the course that fit the aforementioned definition and that routinely result in slow play, and mark them as penalty areas. The superintendent should plan on being involved in discussions regarding determining penalty areas on the course, as he or she is typically the person who has to place the stakes and maintain the grass around them, as well as paint lines when desired. Depending on the extent of the penalty areas identified, this could result in higher costs for supplies and labor.

Also in the proposed Rules revision is an expanded use of red-marked penalty areas. In short, this means that areas that had previously been marked as water hazards (yellow) may now be marked as yellow or red penalty areas at the discretion of the committee. The red penalty area gives the golfer the option to take a drop within 80 inches (this distance is new too, and replaces “two club lengths”) of the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard, no nearer the hole. Relief from a penalty area marked yellow would not allow for this option.

The changes outlined here, and others, will have a significant impact on both the game and the way the course is managed. Complete details on all the proposed changes can be found at the USGA Rules Hub. The USGA is asking for feedback on the Rules revisions, which can be done by sending an email to or by calling 908-326-1850 by Aug. 31.

Jack Fry, Ph.D., is a professor of turfgrass science and the director of the Rocky Ford Turfgrass Research Center at Kansas State University in Manhattan. He is a 20-year educator member of GCSAA.