Putting Across Sprinkler Heads in Golf: Free Relief?

Sprinkler Heads Sometimes Get in the Way, Here's the Ruling

Yuta Ikeda of Japan drops his ball as he takes relief from a sprinkler head on the 7th hole during the third round of the 2011 Northern Trust Open
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The situation is this: Your golf ball is off the green, but close enough that you want to putt; however, directly in your putting line, between your ball and the green, is a sprinkler head embedded in the apron or fringe. Do you get to move your golf ball, without penalty, so that you don't have to try to putt over the sprinkler head?

The short answer is no. But golf courses can introduce a local rule that provides a possible exception.

A Sprinkler Head Is an Immovable Obstruction

When dealing with this sprinkler head scenario, the rule in question is Rule 16, which covers when free relief is available from abnormal course conditions (an immovable obstruction is one category of abnormal course condition). The sprinkler head obviously can't be moved, so many golfers believe that they should be able to move the ball.

If your ball is on top of the sprinkler head, you can move it without penalty. If it is resting up against the sprinkler head, you can move it with a free drop. If the sprinkler head affects your swing or prevents you from taking your normal stance, you can move the ball under Rule 16.

However, none of those things applies in this example. The problem is that if you putt the ball, you'll have to roll it directly over the sprinkler head because it is in the line of your putt.

Rule 16 specifically addresses that problem in this way:

"If the abnormal course condition is close enough to distract the player but does not meet any of these requirements, there is no interference under this Rule."

In other words, in order to take relief because of interference with the line of your putt, your ball must be on the green. In our example, however, the ball is off the green. Therefore, you cannot move the ball.

Your options are to go ahead and putt across the sprinkler head, or to play a chip shot in order to fly your ball over the obstruction and onto the green.

A Local Rule About Sprinklers Near the Green

Golf courses have the option to enact a local rule that allows free relief when a sprinkler head is within two club-lengths of the putting surface. Model Local Rule F-5 (in the Committee Procedures section of the rule book) is titled "Immovable Obstructions Close to Putting Greens" and specifically addresses the issue:

"When a ball lies anywhere other than on the putting green, an immovable obstruction on the player’s line of play is not, of itself, interference under Rule 16.1. Free relief is normally not allowed.
"But if the aprons or fringes of putting greens are cut short enough that putting from off the green is likely to be a common choice of stroke, immovable obstructions that are close to the putting green may interfere with such strokes.
"In that case, the Committee can choose to give an extra relief option under Rule 16.1 when a player’s ball lies in the general area or on the putting green and an immovable obstruction close to the putting green is on the player’s line of play.
"The Committee may limit such relief to certain situations, such as only for particular holes or obstructions, or only when the ball and the obstruction are in part of the general area cut to fairway height or less."

And many golf courses (and some golf tournaments) do have such a local rule in effect. So it pays to know your course's local rules. (They are often posted in the clubhouse and/or printed on the scorecard.)