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Unplayable Ball
Purpose: Rule 19 covers the player’s several relief options for an unplayable ball. This allows the player to choose which option to use – normally with one penalty stroke – to get out of a difficult situation anywhere on the course (except in a penalty area).
Unplayable Ball

Relief Options for Unplayable Ball in General Area or on Putting Green

Player May Take Stroke-and-Distance Relief Even When Spot of Previous Stroke Is Nearer Hole Than Where Unplayable Ball Lies
If a ball comes to rest farther from the hole than the spot from which it was played, stroke-and-distance relief may still be taken. Examples where stroke-and-distance relief may be nearer the hole include when:
  • A player's stroke from the teeing area hits a tree, bounces backwards and comes to rest behind the teeing area. The player may play again from the teeing area under penalty of one stroke.
  • A player has a downhill putt and he or she putts off the putting green and the ball rolls off the green into a bad lie or into a penalty area. The player may play again from the putting green under penalty of one stroke.
Stroke-and-Distance Relief Is Allowed Only at Spot of the Last Stroke
The option to take stroke-and-distance relief for an unplayable ball applies only to where the last stroke was made; a player is not allowed to go back to the spot of any earlier strokes made before that. If the stroke-and-distance relief option or the back-on-the-line option are not favourable, the only option is to take lateral relief multiple times, taking a penalty each time, until the player can get a ball into a playable location.
Reference Point for Lateral Relief When Ball Is Not on the Ground
When a player's ball lies above the ground (such as in a bush or a tree), the player may take lateral relief by using the point on the ground directly below the spot of the ball as his or her reference point:
  • The relief area is within two club-lengths of and no closer to the hole than that reference point on the ground (see Rule 19.2c).
  • In some cases, this might allow a ball to be dropped on a putting green.
But, if an unplayable ball lies on the ground, the spot of the original ball itself is always used as the reference point. For example:
  • If a player's ball lies at the base of a cliff or a steep slope, the spot of the original ball is the reference point.
  • This means that the player may not ignore vertical distance and drop a ball at the top of the cliff or slope within two club-lengths of a point directly above where the ball lies on the ground at the base of the cliff or slope.
No Guarantee Ball Will Be Playable After Taking Unplayable Ball Relief
When taking unplayable ball relief, a player must accept the outcome even if it is unfavourable, such as when a dropped ball comes to rest in its original location or in a bad lie in another location in the relief area:
  • Once the dropped ball comes to rest in the relief area, the player has a new situation.
  • If the player decides that he or she cannot (or does not wish to) play the ball as it now lies, the player may again take unplayable ball relief, for an additional penalty, using any available relief option under Rule 19.
Ball May be Dropped in Any Area of the Course When Taking Unplayable Ball Relief
A player may take relief by dropping a ball into a relief area in any area of the course under the unplayable ball relief options. This includes taking relief from the general area and dropping directly into a bunker or penalty area, onto a putting green, into a no play zone or onto a wrong green. However, if the player chooses to drop into a no play zone or onto a wrong green, the player must then continue to take the relief required by the Rules from that no play zone or wrong green. Similarly, if the player chooses to drop in a penalty area and he or she cannot (or does not wish to) play the ball from where it now lies, the only option is to take further relief under penalty of stroke and distance by playing from where the previous stroke was made because:
  • Unplayable ball relief may not be taken again as such relief is not allowed when a ball lies in a penalty area.
  • Relief from the penalty area using the back-on-the-line relief option or the lateral relief option may also not be taken, because the ball did not cross the edge of the penalty area before coming to rest and therefore there is no reference point and no way of estimating a reference point for taking such relief.
In taking stroke-and-distance relief, the player will get another one-stroke penalty (in addition to the first penalty stroke for taking unplayable ball relief).
Stroke-and-Distance Reference Point Does Not Change Until Stroke Is Made
The reference point used for taking relief under stroke-and-distance does not change until the player makes another stroke at his or her ball in play, even if the player has dropped a ball under a Rule. For example, a player takes relief for an unplayable ball and drops a ball under either the back-on-the-line relief option or lateral relief option. The dropped ball stays within the relief area but rolls into a place that the player again decides is unplayable. For one additional penalty stroke the player may again use the back-on-the-line relief option or lateral relief option, or may choose the stroke-and-distance relief option using the point where the ball was last played before becoming unplayable the first time as the reference point. This stroke-and-distance reference point does not change because the player did not make a stroke at the dropped ball. The outcome would be different if the player made a stroke at the dropped ball, because that spot would become the new stroke-and-distance reference point.
Player May Take Relief Without Penalty if He or She Lifts Ball to Take Unplayable Ball Relief and Discovers Ball Was in Ground Under Repair Before Dropping
If a player lifts his or her ball to take unplayable ball relief and then discovers it was in ground under repair or another abnormal course condition, the player may still take free relief under Rule 16.1 so long as he or she has not yet put a ball in play under Rule 19 to take unplayable ball relief.
Player Must Find Ball to Use Back-On-the-Line or Lateral Relief Options
The back-on-the-line and lateral relief options under Rule 19.2 and 19.3 may not be used without finding the original ball as both require that ball's original spot as the reference point for relief. If either relief option is used to take unplayable ball relief with reference to a ball that is not the player's ball, the player is treated as taking stroke-and-distance relief as that is the only Rule that can be used if the player has not found his or her original ball. For example, a player finds a stray ball in a bad lie. Mistaking it for his or her ball, the player decides to take lateral relief (Rule 19.2c), substitutes a ball and plays it. While walking to play the next stroke, the player finds his or her ball. Since the player did not know the spot of the original ball at the time the other ball was substituted, he or she is treated as having taken stroke-and-distance relief and did so in a wrong place (Rule 14.7). In match play, the player loses the hole for playing from a wrong place. In stroke play, the player gets one penalty stroke for taking stroke-and-distance relief (Rule 18.1) and another two penalty strokes for doing so from a wrong place. If the wrong place was a serious breach, the mistake must be corrected before making a stroke to start another hole, or for the final hole of the round, before returning his or her scorecard.

Relief Options for Unplayable Ball in Bunker

Taking Unplayable Ball Relief Outside Bunker After First Taking Unplayable Ball Relief in Bunker
If a player's ball lies in a bunker and the player takes unplayable ball relief in the bunker for one penalty stroke under Rule 19.3a and then decides he or she cannot (or does not wish to) play the dropped ball as it now lies, the player is faced with a new situation:
  • Unplayable ball relief may again be taken under Rule 19.3a, for one more penalty stroke, for a total of two penalty strokes, by either using stroke-and-distance relief and playing again from where the previous stroke was made or by using the ball's new spot as the reference point for taking back-on-the-line relief or lateral relief in the bunker.
  • If the player instead decides to take relief by dropping a ball behind the bunker using the extra relief option under Rule 19.3b, he or she gets two more penalty strokes in addition to the one-stroke penalty for taking unplayable ball relief the first time, for a total of three penalty strokes.