Play the Course As You Find It
By Kelsey Solan, USGA Rules Department • March 2, 2020
One of the most fundamental Rules of the game of golf is to play the course as you find it. While there are exceptions, in general when playing a round, you must play the ball as it lies on the golf course and play the course as it’s found. This means that normally you must accept the conditions of where your ball came to rest. To maintain this principle, Rule 8 protects areas known as the “conditions affecting the stroke” for the next stroke that you will make. These protected conditions include:
• the lie of your ball at rest,
• the area of your intended stance,
• the area of your intended swing,
• your line of play, and
• the relief area where you will drop or place a ball.
While you generally may not make improvements to these areas, the Rules do allow you to take certain reasonable actions even if they improve those conditions affecting your stroke. Additionally, there are limited circumstances where you can avoid penalty by restoring conditions even after they have been improved.
The overarching theme of Rule 8 is that you may not improve any of your conditions affecting the stroke, except that you are entitled to perform some reasonable actions even if they make an improvement to those areas. Let’s take a look at some of the actions you are and are not allowed to do as well as some examples of each!
Actions That Are Not Allowed
Except as allowed by certain actions we’ll look at later, you may not take any of the following actions if they improve the conditions affecting the stroke (that is, if they are likely to give you a potential advantage):
• Moving, bending or breaking any object that is growing or attached, an immovable obstruction, an integral object or a boundary object – For example, a branch growing off a tree is sticking out directly in the area of your intended backswing, and you break off the branch so it no longer will interfere.
• Moving a loose impediment or movable obstruction into position (such as to build a stance or to improve the line of play) – For example, if your ball lies in a tree, you may not move a nearby bench into position to stand on to be able to make a stroke at your ball.
• Altering the surface of the ground – For example, your ball is short of the green and you repair a pitch-mark in the general area a few yards in front of your ball on your line of play before hitting a low-running chip shot.
• Removing or pressing down sand or loose soil – For example, when putting from just off the green, there is some loose sand in the fringe on your line of play that you brush away.
• Removing dew, frost or water – For example, because there is dew on your line of play on the putting green early in the morning, you clear all the dew off your line of play with a towel.
Actions That Are Allowed
In preparing for or making a stroke, you may take certain actions even if doing so improves one of the five conditions affecting the stroke mentioned above. Some of these allowed actions include:
• Fairly searching for your ball – For example, while searching for your ball in tall grass but not doing anything beyond what is reasonably necessary to find it, you press down some grass that may have improved your area of intended swing.
• Grounding the club lightly in front of or right behind the ball – “Ground the club lightly” means allowing the weight of the club to be supported by the grass, soil, sand or other material on or above the ground surface. For example, there is no penalty if in grounding your club lightly in a “waste area,” some sand is pressed down that improves the lie of your ball. However, a penalty would still apply if you press the club down more than lightly and improve your lie.
• Fairly taking your stance – To fairly take your stance, you must use the least intrusive course of action to adapt to the situation. For example, if you back into a branch because that is the only way to take a stance for the selected stroke, there is no penalty even if this moves the branch out of the way and improves the area of your stance or swing.
• Making a stroke or the backswing for your stroke which is then made – Provided you finish making the stroke, there is no penalty for improvements made during your backswing or stroke. For example, in making the backswing for your stroke, you break off a piece of a branch and knock down some leaves.
Note that the lists of allowed and not allowed actions above are not exhaustive. If you would like to read the full lists, please see Rules 8.1a and 8.1b in the Rules of Golf.
New to the Rules for 2019 was the concept of restoring certain conditions after you have made an improvement to avoid getting a penalty. Such restorations can only apply in specific circumstances – bending or breaking an object or moving an object into position. As an example, prior to your stroke, you remove a boundary stake (which the Rules treat as immovable) that was interfering with your area of intended stance. If you replace the stake prior to making your stroke, you can avoid penalty under Rule 8.1.
Outside of actions that are needed and reasonable to prepare for and make a stroke, you must not make improvements to affect the stroke you are about to make – play the course as you find it!
About the WPGA
Founded in 1899, the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association is the steward of amateur golf in the region. Started by five Member Clubs, the association now has nearly 200 Member Clubs and 33,000 members. The WPGA conducts 14 individual competitions and 10 team events, and administers the WPGA Scholarship Fund.