What Do Yellow Stakes or Yellow Lines Mean on a Golf Course?

Yellow stakes indicate that Adam Scott is inside the boundary of a water hazard
The yellow stakes (and line) indicate that Adam Scott is inside the boundary of a water hazard. Jeff Gross / Getty Images

Before explaining what yellow stakes and lines on a golf course mean, let's start by explaining what they used to mean: These yellow indicators (usually one or the other, but sometimes both) were used to designate a water hazard. (Lateral water hazards were marked by red stakes/lines.)

Beginning in 2019, with the Rules of Golf edition that went into effect that year, the terms "hazard," "water hazard" and "lateral water hazard" were dropped. Today, the term "penalty area" is used instead, and has a slightly more expansive meaning than "water hazard." A golf course committee can choose, for example, to designate "deserts, jungles, lava rock fields, etc." (in the words of the USGA) as penalty areas.

So if you see yellow stakes or yellow lines on a golf course now, they designate a yellow penalty area: a place from which you can attempt to play your golf ball, if, in fact, it appears playable, but from which you'll most likely have to take a drop and apply a penalty stroke.

Yellow Penalty Areas Are Now Covered in Rule 17

Prior to 2019, water hazards, designated by yellow stakes or lines, were covered under Rule 26 in the Rules of Golf. Today, under the new, condensed rules, yellow penalty areas are covered under Rule 17.

We'll discuss the options that rule provides in the following text, but for the full explanations you can check out the rule book in two versions:

Options When Your Ball Lands in a Yellow Penalty Area

Oops, you hit your golf ball into an area marked by yellow stakes or yellow lines. That means your ball is inside a yellow penalty area. Now what?

The golfer always has the option to play a stroke from within the penalty area. But if your ball is in water, or you'd have to stand in water, or your ball is under water or otherwise in a very bad place, attempting to play it out is probably a bad idea.

And that most likely means you'll be applying a penalty stroke and taking relief. That means dropping the ball outside of the area marked by yellow stakes/yellow lines.

There are two options for relief from a yellow penalty area, both coming with a penalty of one stroke. The first of those is to go back to the place from which you played the original stroke and drop a ball into a one-club-length relief area no nearer the hole. (Be sure to read the pertinent section of the rule book, linked above, for the full details.) This option is called stroke-and-distance relief.

The second option is called back-on-the-line relief. This means identifying the spot at which your ball crossed into the yellow penalty area, then imagining a straight line drawn from the hole on the putting green back to that spot. You can walk back on that line as far as you wish before dropping within a one-club-length relief area.

Yellow Stakes and Lines Might Become Less-Common

A provision in the new penalty-area version of the Rules of Golf might make yellow stakes/yellow lines a less common sight than in previous years. That's because the R&A and USGA have given golf courses the option to designate all penalty areas as red penalty areas.

What's the point of that? A red penalty area gives golfers an additional option for relief: lateral relief. That means dropping to the side of the penalty area, if such an option exists on the golf course. (Some lakes or other penalty areas will be too large to provide a lateral option.)

This provision, the governing bodies explained, is intended to help pace of play. It is quicker to drop within two club lengths of where a ball crossed the margin of the penalty area than it is to walk back on the line or take stroke-and-distance. However, it is up to golf courses and Committees to make the determination whether to switch a previously identified yellow water hazard to a red penalty area.