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The Most Confusing Rules in Golf

By: | Thu 12 Oct 2023

PEOPLE getting involved with golf for the first time could be forgiven for feeling somewhat confused by the sport’s rules. I have played it all my life and I still find some of the rules and regulations utterly bemusing.

Here are just a few of the rules that drive me bonkers - or should that be bunkers?

Divot Holes in The Fairway

I am going to start with the one that annoys me the most, simply because it is so unfair. You hit a glorious drive, straight down the middle of the fairway, walk up to your ball and find that it has finished in a divot hole left by some inconsiderate golfer ahead of you. And you have to play the ball as it lies? You can hit your ball into a sprinkler head and you get relief. Will somebody PLEASE explain to me why there is no relief from a divot in the middle of a fairway?


When the USGA and R&A attempted to modernise the rulebook in 2019, one of the areas they addressed was bunkers. I wish they hadn’t bothered. I was brought up not to remove any loose impediments in bunkers and, most definitely, not to touch the sand with anything other than your feet. 

Golfers can now touch the sand in a variety of circumstances as long as they’re not deliberately attempting to test the sand while they’re doing it.

Among the things that are now allowed are:

Hitting the sand in anger or frustration. I know lots of golfers who have been doing this for years! Sergio Garcia is a past master at attacking bunkers.

Leaning on a club in a bunker (such as when you might be waiting for another player to hit a shot). Call me a traditionalist if you want, but if you lean on a club in a bunker then surely that is exactly the same as testing the sand, something you are not allowed to do? It makes no sense.

Removing loose impediments like stones, leaves and pine cones (provided you don’t cause the ball to move in doing so). I can see the sense in this but find it really difficult to do.

Rules of Golf

(Image Credit: Kevin Diss Photography)

Immovable Obstructions

What, exactly, is an immovable object? I have seen club golfers attempt to move all manner of obstructions, from fallen tree trunks to giant boulders. So just what can you do?

I am talking about things like sprinkler heads, drains, cart paths and other man-made objects that cannot be moved without “unreasonable effort” or causing damage to the course.

The truth is that most club golfers believe their ball must be touching the obstruction to receive relief. Not the case. You can take relief if the obstruction interferes with your swing or your stance. One important thing to remember when taking said relief is that you must take “complete” relief from the obstruction. So, if you’re standing on a cart path, you must make sure that after taking relief, the cart path is no longer impeding your stance, swing or lie before hitting your next shot.

Accidentally Hitting The Ball on The Green

This is another rule change introduced in 2019 that I struggle with. I don’t believe there is any excuse for accidentally hitting your ball with your putter while taking a practice swing. If you do so it is because you are not paying attention and, in my view, you should be penalised. But I am wrong because if that does happen to you then you may replace the ball without penalty.

On the other side of the coin, common sense has finally prevailed if you place your ball on the green and the wind causes it to move. I have played a lot of golf in Scotland, so I know all about playing in the wind and it always seemed incredibly unfair to me that you incurred a penalty if you addressed a putt, the wind blew and your ball started travelling. On the other hand, if the ball comes to rest and then starts moving before you have marked it, you play it from where it finally comes to rest, whether that is closer or further away from the hole. 

I feel a headache coming on!

Leaving The Flag In

NO!!!!! If I play golf until I am 100, I will never, ever feel comfortable with leaving the flag in the hole while I am putting. Every time I watch Matt Fitzpatrick or Adam Scott putt I expect to see his golf ball rebound off the stick. It never does, of course. To me, it just seems wrong to leave the flag in. If you hit a putt that is on line but hit far too hard then it should be finishing way past the hole, but if it hits the pin it will either drop in or stop inches from the hole. How can that be right?

What's The Difference Between Red & Yellow?

Does anybody struggle with red and yellow stakes? There is one notable difference between the options a player has when taking relief after hitting a ball into a red penalty area as opposed to yellow. And it is actually pretty simple. Red stakes allow players to also take lateral relief (up to two club-lengths no nearer the hole) from where the ball entered the penalty area in addition to returning to the spot from the previous shot, and back-on-the-line relief where you can drop anywhere on an imaginary line drawn from the hole through the spot where the ball last crossed into the penalty area. Clear? But the last two are the lone options if the penalty area is yellow. All options require a player to take a one-stroke penalty, but you also have the option to play the ball as it lies and risk falling into the water or getting your clothes covered in lovely mud.

Grounding Your Club

This was a victory for common sense - and a rule change I approve of. Before 2019 you were not allowed to ground your club in a hazard. I could never see either the logic or sense, and it got all sorts of golfers into all sorts of trouble. Now, thankfully, you can take practice swings and ground your club without penalty. You can also remove loose impediments - providing you don’t move the ball - so you can actually play these shots without fear of damaging golf clubs that have cost you a small fortune. And about time too!

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