Understanding 'Preferred Lies' (Lift, Clean and Place)

PGA Tour golfer Skip Kendall takes advantage of lift, clean and place during the Puerto Rico Open
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"Preferred lies" refers to a condition that exists by local rule only and under which golfers are, on certain parts of a golf course, allowed to improve their lies without penalty. (This is also called "preferring a lie," hence the name.)

If—and only if—you are informed upon arrival at a golf course that the "preferred lies" local rule is in effect, then you will have the option to improve the lie of your golf ball in "closely mown areas" during the round, and without penalty. Traditionally, "preferred lies" means a golfer can lift a golf ball that is in the ​fairway and move it up to six inches in any direction (but not closer to the hole), but there are variations on the length that is allowed.

The "preferred lies" condition is also commonly known by two other names:

When preferred lies are in effect on professional golf tours, they often use the term "lift, clean and place."

Why Golf Courses Implement Preferred Lies

Why do the Rules of Golf include such a local-rule option? Imagine a golf course struck by a very bad drought. Its fairways are baked and there are bare patches of ground in the fairways. That golf course might invoke the Preferred Lies local rule so that its golfers can find a good lie in those damaged fairways.

Or, as the USGA and R&A explain in Appendix I to the Rules of Golf:

...(A)dverse conditions, such as heavy snows, spring thaws, prolonged rains or extreme heat can make fairways unsatisfactory and sometimes prevent use of heavy mowing equipment. When these conditions are so general throughout a course that the Committee believes 'preferred lies' or 'winter rules' would promote fair play or help protect the course, the course can invoke the local rule.

Where Preferred Lies Applies

A golfer cannot discover his ball sitting on a bare patch of hardpan in the first fairway and declare, "winter rules!" Preferred lies apply:

  • Only where a local rule or condition of competition is in place, and golfers are informed of such. (Ideally, some kind of sign is posted so golfers know specifically how far they are allowed to move a ball.)
  • Golfers can lift, clean and place a ball only when it originally lies in a closely mown area. "Closely mown area" means any part of the golf course that is mowed to fairway height. Therefore, it does not include any rough or putting greens, but may include aprons around the greens or paths mowed through rough.

How Far You Can Move a Ball Under Preferred Lies

That's up to the entity that is invoking the local rule. The USGA and R&A, in their recommended wording for the local rule, do not specify any distance. The sample local rule says only that a ball lifted under preferred lies must be placed "on a spot within (specify area, e.g., six inches, one club-length, etc.) of and not nearer the hole than where it originally lay, that is not in a hazard and not on a putting green."

We noted earlier that six inches is probably the most-common length used in the local rule; that is, you can move the ball up to six inches. But other standards are used, too: Some courses or tournaments may state the ball can be moved "one scorecard" away (the length of the scorecard). Others may use a one-club-length standard. (The pro tours usually, but not always, go with one club-length.)

The Lift, Clean and Place Procedure

The phrase "lift, clean and place" really tells you all you need to know about the proper procedure for moving a ball under the condition of the preferred lie:

  • You must not bump it, roll it, foot wedge it, toss it or pick up the ball and drop it.
  • You must mark the ball's original position before lifting. Use a ballmarker, a tee, whatever.
  • You are allowed to clean the ball after lifting. (Pervasive mud on the course is one of the most common reasons for implementing preferred lies.)
  • After cleaning, you must place the ball—again, no bumping, rolling, kicking, tossing, etc.—on a spot within the distance specified by the local rule in effect.

The specimen local rule is printed in the rule book and on the USGA and R&A websites in Appendix I to the Rules of Golf, Section 3-b.