Golf's Rule 19 Applies to An Unplayable Ball

Golfer Rafa Cabrera-Bello ponders an unplayable ball that is under a bush.

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In the Official Rules of Golf, jointly written and maintained by the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Rule 19 is titled "Unplayable Ball."

The purpose of the rule, as excerpted from the rule book, is this:

Rule 19 covers the player’s several relief options for an unplayable ball. This allows the player to choose which option to use — normally with one penalty stroke — to get out of a difficult situation anywhere on the course (except in a penalty area).

It is the responsibility of golfers to know the rules, and the USGA and R&A have tons of resources on their respective websites to help us learn and understand. These are links directly to the text of Rule 19 that is found on the governing bodies' websites:

Summarizing Rule 19: Unplayable Ball

In our Quick Intro to the Rules of Golf, we summarize Rule 19 as follows:

  • You may declare your ball unplayable anywhere on the course except in penalty areas. Add a penalty stroke and then do one of the following: a) Go back to where you played the last shot and play a ball from there; b) Go back on a straight line as far as you wish, keeping where the unplayable ball lay between the hole and where you drop the ball; or c) Measure two club-lengths from where the unplayable ball lay, drop a ball and play from there.
  • If you declare you ball unplayable in a bunker, the ball can be dropped within the bunker, or outside the bunker at a cost of two strokes.

There are three sections within Rule 19 in the rule book. Here are the section titles, along with links directly to each section:

  • Rule 19.1: Player May Decide to Take Unplayable Ball Relief Anywhere Except Penalty Area
  • Rule 19.2: Relief Options for Unplayable Ball in General Area or on Putting Green
  • Rule 19.3: Relief Options for Unplayable Ball in Bunker

The Full Edition of Rule 19 on the R&A website includes several videos to help explain the rule, one on taking back-on-the-line relief, another on taking lateral relief, and one addressing an unplayable ball in a bunker. On both the USGA and R&A sites, and in the physical rule book, there are two diagrams included in Rule 19. Those diagrams illustrate relief options for an unplayable ball in the general area of the golf course, and for one in a bunker.

Be sure to read the full Rule 19, interpretations of Rule 19, and definitions of important terms either on or