What Are Winter (Preferred Lies) Rules?

Golfer pulling golf clubs on pull cart on golf course in Winter

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The concept of winter rules, also known as "preferred lies," is one of the most misunderstood concepts in golf. These "winter rules" refer to the practice some golf courses adopt when weather causes adverse conditions on the golf course to allow players to pick up, clean off, and replace their balls if they land in a weather-worn spot

Also, the attitude of the USGA and R&A, golf's governing bodies, toward winter rules or preferred lies changed with the publication of the 2004 edition of the Rules of Golf — but were later clarified in the 34 Rules of Golf's Appendix 1, Part A, Definiton 4b, which states: 

Adverse conditions, including the poor condition of the course or the existence of mud, are sometimes so general, particularly during winter months, that the Committee may decide to grant relief by temporary Local Rule either to protect the course or to promote fair and pleasant play. The Local Rule should be withdrawn as soon as the conditions warrant.

We'll attempt here to clear up some of the confusion and misconceptions about winter rules. But first, let's explain what most golfers mean when they use the terms "winter rules" or "preferred lies."

Local Rules and Bad Course Conditions

In locations where winter weather can be harsh, with negative effects on golf courses, some courses will post a sign stating "winter rules in effect today," or "preferred lies today." This means, in the simplest explanation, that golfers may improve their lies by moving their golf balls in certain rough areas of the course, and those areas are usually limited to the fairway.

For example, if a golfer's drive is in the fairway but the ball comes to rest on a patch of bare earth where the grass has died, winter rules may allow that golfer to move the ball onto a patch of living grass.

Unfortunately, golfers interpret "winter rules" or "preferred lies" to mean many different things, mostly because many golf courses and clubs do not explain exactly what the terms mean. All too often, the only notice that the local rule is in effect is a sign that says "Winter Rules In Effect Today" posted at the starter's shack or in the clubhouse.

Without details, some golfers are apt to do anything they please to take advantage of the situation — including improving their lies in bunkers, improving their lies in water hazards, and even moving the ball from fringe onto the putting green surface!

The Old Rule in 2004

Here's the most important thing we can tell you about winter rules, and it's something that most golfers don't know: Winter rules were not codified under any of the regular thirty-four Rules of Golf; instead, they were a local rule that had to be enacted before being in effect, just like the "one ball" condition. That was until 2015 when the Rules of Golf updated its terms (as stated above).

Originally, the 2004 Rules of Golf, Appendix I, Part B, Section 3b was the only rule to define winter effects: 

"If a player's ball lies on a closely-mown area through the green [or specify a more restricted area, e.g., at the 6th hole] the player may mark, lift and clean his ball without penalty. Before lifting, he must mark the position of the ball. The player must then place the ball 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 or on a putting green.
"A player may place his ball only once, and it is in play when it has been placed (Rule 20-4). If the ball fails to come to rest on the spot on which it was placed, Rule 20-3d applies. If the ball when placed comes to rest on the spot on which it is placed and it subsequently moves, there is no penalty and the ball must be played as it lies, unless the provisions of any other Rule apply.
"If the player fails to mark the position of the ball before lifting it or moves the ball in any other manner, such as rolling it with a club, he incurs a penalty of one stroke."

However, with the updated rules, courses could also clearly define when and what conditions applied to fit local rules governing winter rules. Still, only a course, club or Committee in charge of the competitions are authorized to declare these rules in effect, and if one of those bodies has not issued winter rules or preferred lies ruling, players may not use winter rules no matter how bad the conditions.

When winter rules are in effect, such notice should be specific. A simple and effective way of publishing such notice is a verbal or written statement, "Winter rules are in effect today according to Appendix I, ROG: Fairway only, one time — lift, clean and place within six inches."

The Evolution of Winter Rules

Prior to 2004, the Appendix contained the strong admonition that the USGA and the R&A did not endorse "preferred lies" and "winter rules;" that such rules contravened the fundamental principle of playing the ball as it lies; and that the ruling bodies would ignore any requests for assistance in making rulings when "preferred lies" and "winter rules" were involved. These statements have been removed as of the 2015 edition and been further clearly defined.

Still, winter rules are simply treated like any other local rule, with no distinct status apart from other local rules that govern tournament play. While this detail may seem to be a very small side note, it reflects a significant change in attitude toward a practice that used to be one golf's governing bodies thumbed their noses at.

There is one practical drawback to winter rules. Section 7 of the USGA Handicap System Manual addresses winter rules and stipulates that rounds played under winter rules shall be posted for handicap purposes. If you keep a handicap and play around using winter rules, you must post that score — which will likely be lower than the score you would have shot without winter rules. You are therefore artificially lowering your handicap by using winter rules.

Who Decides the Rules?

Ultimately, the choice comes down to the individual player as It is not mandatory to take advantage of winter rules — or preferred lies — when the local rule is in effect. Players are entitled to take advantage of the rule if it is in effect, but they are also entitled to play the balls as they lie — if they prefer playing the game in the traditional fashion.