Penalty Area Rule in Golf

Penalty Area Rule: Relief Options from a Hazard

Is there anything worse than seeing your golf ball disappear in a pond or end up in a penalty area? Well, maybe seeing it go out of bounds, but we’ll save that topic for another day.

Today, I want to help you understand the penalty area rule, as it’s such a common issue in golf. If you’re an avid golfer and actually playing by the rules of golf, you need to know your drop options. 

Luckily, it’s a pretty simple rule and depends on the type of penalty area (red or yellow stakes) more than anything else. 

Key Takeaways

  • If your ball ends up in a penalty area (previously referred to as hazards) you need to know your drop options.
  • There are a few options which we’ll cover below – all of which are a one stroke penalty (which is better than out of bounds, which is a two-stroke penalty). 
  • Your relief options change based on if the penalty area is red or yellow stakes. 
  • Or, you can always choose to play the shot from the penalty area as well. You’re now also able to ground the club in these areas, which can make the shot easier. 

Keep reading to learn more about this common golf rule now. 

Penalty Area Rule 

If you’ve played much golf, chances are you know hazards aka penalty areas, all too well. Hitting your golf ball in challenging spots is part of the game we all love (and sometimes loathe). 

So, what are your relief options if you end up in a penalty area – which is typically water (pond, creek, etc.)? It depends on if the penalty area is marked with red or yellow stakes, as there are slightly different options.

Penalty Area Rule in Golf

Red Penalty Area Drop Options 

Most penalty areas are marked with red stakes and previously referred to as lateral hazards. 

According to the USGA, “When it is known or virtually certain that a ball is in a red penalty area and the player wishes to take relief, the player has three options, each for one penalty stroke.”

Before getting into the drop options, it’s important to note that you cannot hit a provisional shot if you think your ball is in the penalty area. Provisional balls are only allowed when you think a ball might be lost or out of bounds. 

Option 1: Stroke and Distance Relief

The first option is known as stroke and distance relief. 

This is the equivalent of replaying the previous shot and hitting again. This is the same relief option as a lost ball or an area that is marked as an out-of-bounds on the course. 

It’s rare to take this relief option, as it’s very penalizing and makes you replay the previous shot. For example, if you hit your second shot in the water, you’ll drop from the same spot (from knee height) and now hitting your fourth shot. 

Typically, this drop isn’t recommended, as you’re no closer to the hole. 

Option 2: Back on the Line Relief

The second option is back on the line relief, which is when you’ll drop before the water in line with the path it entered the penalty area. 

For example, let’s imagine a par 3 where there is water in front of the green. If your tee shot finds the water, you would drop behind the water on the path that it entered the pond.

It’s common to confirm the line with your playing partners to figure out the best place to drop. You can go as far back on the line as you’d like (usually to find a good distance that suits you) and drop from knee height. You’re able to drop within two clubs of the spot as long as it’s not nearer the hole. 

Option 3: Lateral Relief 

The final option – for red staked hazards only – is lateral relief. 

Let’s expand on the previous example, where you hit your tee shot in the water on a par 3. But this time, let’s assume your tee shot made it over the water, landed on grass, then rolled back in the drink.

If your ball does make it over the water and then rolls back, you can take lateral relief past the water. You’ll ask your playing partners where it entered the water, then find a spot within two clubs as long as it’s not closer to the hole. Then take a drop from knee height and play from this spot.

If your drop does roll back into the penalty area twice, you are allowed to place the ball. It’s a good idea to have someone else in your group behind you to catch the ball to avoid it rolling back in the water. 

Please note – lateral relief is only available with red stake penalty areas! 

New Rules of Golf

Yellow Penalty Area Drop Options 

The other type of penalty area is marked with yellow stakes. If your ball ends up in a yellow penalty area, you only have two options.

The first relief option is stroke and distance, which is the same process as noted above for red penalty areas and out of bounds. You’ll replay from the previous spot within one club length, as long as it’s not closer to the hole.

The second relief option is also the same as red penalty areas – back on the line relief. You’ll drop behind the water on the same line that it entered. 

However, you’re only allowed one club length from the reference point. The reference point should be a tee that you place in the ground on the path that it entered the water. 

Penalty Area to Penalty Area Relief

While red and yellow penalty area drops are the most common, sometimes a third instance can occur. This is when you play a ball from a penalty area and it ends up in a penalty area again, but the second time you need to take relief.

For example, let’s say your tee shot ended up in a penalty area, but it wasn’t fully submerged. You thought you could hit a shot out of the water and decided to attempt it. 

Unfortunately, the shot doesn’t go as planned and your next shot goes in the middle of the pond. Now you must take a drop… but how do you play it? 

In this instance, there are four options -all of which come with a one shot penalty. 

  1. Stroke and distance relief (still in the penalty area) and is now hitting your fourth shot. 
  2. Back on the line relief by dropping the ball outside the penalty area and now hitting your fourth shot.
  3. Lateral relief from where the ball entered the hazard on the original shot (no closer to the hole). This also only applies for red staked areas.
  4. Play from the original teeing area (or location) where the last stroke was made outside the penalty area. 

This is a lot more complicated and unlikely to happen very often, but it’s always good to know the rules. 

FAQs About Penalty Areas 

Do you have more questions about penalty area relief or other rules questions? If so, keep reading through the most frequently asked questions and answers below. 

What is the difference between yellow and red penalty areas in golf?

Both types of penalty areas require a one shot penalty. The main difference is the relief options, as you get three with red penalty areas and only two with yellow areas. 

What is not allowed in a penalty area?

You can’t deem your ball unplayable or take relief from other conditions like a sprinkler head or bridge that might get in the way. 

Can you ground your club in a hazard?

Can you ground your club in a penalty area?

Yes, you are allowed to ground your club in the penalty area. This is a newer rule that makes it a lot easier to hit from a hazard if you think it’s playable. 

Can you hit from a penalty area? 

Yes, if your ball ends up in a penalty area and it’s sitting in a spot where you can play it you are allowed to do so (without penalty). You can also stand in a penalty area even if your ball is not to hit a shot as well. 

Is a lost ball a two-stroke penalty?

Yes, if you’re unable to find your ball after searching for three minutes, you must replay the shot from the previous location. If it was your tee shot, you’ll need to go back to the box and now hitting your third shot. 

My Experience

I’ve played in 200+ tournament days since 2017, but still far from a “rules expert.” It’s a good idea to carry a mini rules book in your bag and you can always search the USGA’s website during a round too. 

That being said, if you are planning to compete in tournaments, make sure you know these common rules.

These are the most common issues you’ll face on the golf course in competition. 

Final Thoughts

If you plan to play competitive events it’s essential that you know these basic penalty area rules. Otherwise, you might take an incorrect drop and get other penalty strokes. Or, cause a delay to pace of play if you have to call in a rules official. 

However, don’t be afraid to call a rules official if you and your group can’t decide on the proper drop options. They can help you take the correct relief options and ensure everything is done correctly.
Next, make sure to read our guide to the rules of golf. Plus, don’t forget to read up on the right etiquette too.

Picture of Michael Leonard

Michael Leonard

Michael is an avid golfer of 25 years who played in high school, college, and now competes in Arizona amateur events. He is a full-time writer, podcast host of Wicked Smart Golf, and mental golf coach.

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