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Relief from Loose Impediments and Movable Obstructions (including Ball or Ball-Marker Helping or Interfering with Play)
Purpose: Rule 15 covers when and how the player may take free relief from loose impediments and movable obstructions.
  • These movable natural and artificial objects are not treated as part of the challenge of playing the course, and a player is normally allowed to remove them when they interfere with play.
  • But the player needs to be careful in moving loose impediments near his or her ball off the putting green, because there will be a penalty if moving them causes the ball to move.
Relief from Loose Impediments and Movable Obstructions (including Ball or Ball-Marker Helping or Interfering with Play)

Loose Impediments

Removing a Loose Impediment, Including Assistance from Others
Loose impediments come in many shapes and sizes (such as acorns and large rocks), and the means and methods by which they may be removed are not limited, except that removal must not unreasonably delay play (see Rule 5.6a). For example, a player may use a towel, hand or hat, or may lift or push a loose impediment for removal. A player is also allowed to seek help in removing loose impediments, such as by asking spectators for assistance in removing a large tree branch.
Player Allowed to Break Off Part of Loose Impediment
While Rule 15.1a allows a player to remove a loose impediment, he or she may also break off part of a loose impediment. For example, a player's ball comes to rest behind a large branch that has broken off a tree. Rather than seek help from other players to remove the entire tree branch, the player may break off the part that is in his or her way.
Removal of Loose Impediment from Relief Area or Spot Where Ball to Be Dropped, Placed or Replaced
Exception 1 to Rule 15.1a makes clear that, before replacing a ball, the player must not remove a loose impediment that, if moved when the ball was at rest, would have been likely to cause the ball to move. This is because when the ball is in its initial location, the player risks the ball moving when removing the loose impediment. However, when a ball is to be dropped or placed, the ball is not being put back in a specific spot and therefore removing loose impediments before dropping or placing a ball is allowed. For example, if a player is applying Rule 14.3b when dropping a ball in a relief area or Rule 14.3c(2) when a dropped ball will not stay in a relief area and the player now must place a ball, the player is allowed to remove loose impediments from the relief area into which a ball will be dropped or from on or around the spot on which the player must place a ball.

Ball or Ball-Marker Helping or Interfering with Play

Breach of Rule for Leaving Helping Ball in Place Does Not Require Knowledge
In stroke play, under Rule 15.3a, if two or more players agree to leave a ball in place on the putting green to help any player, and the stroke is made with the helping ball left in place, each player who made the agreement gets two penalty strokes. A breach of Rule 15.3a does not depend on whether the players know that such an agreement is not allowed. For example, in stroke play, before playing from just off the putting green, a player asks another player to leave his or her ball that is near the hole, in order to use it as a backstop. Without knowing this is not allowed, the other player agrees to leave his or her ball by the hole to help the other player. Once the stroke is made with the ball in place, both players get the penalty under Rule 15.3a. The same outcome would apply if the player whose ball was near the hole offered to leave the ball in play to help the other player, and the other player accepted the offer and then played. If the players know that they are not allowed to make such an agreement, but still do it, they are both disqualified under Rule 1.3b(1) for deliberately ignoring Rule 15.3a.
Players Allowed to Leave Helping Ball in Match Play
In a match, a player may agree to leave his or her ball in place to help the opponent since the outcome of any benefit that may come from the agreement affects only their match.
“Backstopping” is the common term used to describe the following situation in stroke play: A player, without agreement with any other player, leaves his or her ball in place on the putting green close to the hole in a position where another player, who is about to play from off the putting green, could benefit if his or her ball struck the ball at rest. As there has been no agreement to leave the ball in place to help any player, there is no breach of the Rules – see Rule 15.3a. However, The R&A and USGA take the view that “backstopping” fails to take into account all of the other players in the competition and has the potential to give the player with the “backstop” an advantage over those other players. Consequently, The R&A and USGA offer players the following guidance and explanation of best practice:
  • In stroke play, the competition involves all players and, because each player in the competition cannot be present to protect his or her own interests, protecting the field is an important responsibility that all players in the competition share.
  • Therefore, in stroke play, if there is a reasonable possibility that a player’s ball close to the hole could help another player who is about to play from off the green, both players should ensure that the player whose ball is close to the hole marks and lifts that ball before the other player plays.
If all players follow this best practice, it ensures the protection of the interests of everyone in the competition. (Clarification added - 1/2020)