What Are the Standards for Declaring a Ball Unplayable?

The Unplayable Lie Rule in Golf

Here's a question golfers ask, or wonder about, from time to time regarding the unplayable lie rule:

"Following my first putt on the green, my ball rolled into a greenside bunker. Can I declare my ball 'unplayable,' and go back to the last spot where I last hit it to replay the shot?"

The short answer: Yes.

It's counterintuitive because declaring a ball unplayable when, in fact, the ball is eminently playable seems counter to the basic golf principle of "play it as it lies."

In the scenario described above, the golfer would remove the ball from the bunker, assess himself a one-stroke penalty, place the ball at the spot of the original putt and try again. You never, ever see pros doing something like this because pros are unwilling to take the penalty. A golfer who is terrified of sand (pros consider sand shots among the easier shots in golf) might, however, think that one-stroke penalty is worth it to get out of the sand.

Whether a Ball Is 'Unplayable' Is Solely Up to Golfer to Decide

Fact is, a golfer can declare any ball unplayable, at any time, for any reason, and anywhere on the course other than in a penalty area (a water hazard or any other area marked with red stakes or yellow stakes). The penalty is one stroke.

In the rulebook in effect through the end of 2018, unplayable lies are covered under Rule 28, Ball Unplayable:

"The player may declare his ball unplayable at any place on the course except when the ball is in a water hazard. The player is the sole judge as to whether his ball is unplayable."

In the rulebook in effect from Jan. 1, 2019, going forward, unplayable lies are covered under Rule 19, Unplayable Ball. Under the heading "You May Decide to Take Unplayable Ball Relief Anywhere Except Penalty Area," the rule states this:

"You are the only person who may decide to treat your ball as unplayable. Unplayable ball relief is allowed anywhere on the course, except in a penalty area."

So the question of who gets to decide whether a golf ball is unplayable, and for what reason, is very straightforward: You, the golfer, and nobody else, makes that determination.

Proceeding After Ball Declared Unplayable

There are multiple ways for the golfer to proceed once he or she has declared the ball unplayable. Just be sure you understand that doing so always means incurring at least a one-stroke penalty. If you declare the ball unplayable, you do so at the loss of at least one stroke.

The most common options for proceeding after taking the unplayable lie penalty are to return to the spot of the previous stroke and play again (stroke-and-distance relief); or drop within two club-lengths, not nearer the hole, of the unplayable lie; or drop behind the unplayable lie spot, going back as far as you want, keeping the original spot between the hole and the new place where you drop (back-on-the-line relief).

Declaring a ball that is in a bunker unplayable comes with four options, one of which results in a two-stroke, rather than one-stroke, penalty. Those options are stroke-and-distance relief; back-on-the-line relief inside the bunker (your ball remains in bunker); or lateral relief inside the bunker. Or, for a two-stroke penalty, back-on-the-line relief outside the bunker.

See Rule 19 in the new rulebook for complete details as well as illustrations of the different scenarios.