Date: September 04, 2015
Author: S.Fabian, GA national referee

Rules: To drop or to place?

Golfers are generally aware of the basic rule of thumb with regard to dropping and placing the ball: place on the green and drop in hazards or through the green. Most also understand that, when a ball must be replaced (for example if it has been moved by an outside agency) and the exact spot where it originally lay is not determinable, the spot must be estimated and the ball placed if that spot is on the green, or dropped in a hazard or through the green. However, there are some important exceptions to this generalization.

Dropping a Ball on the Green

Rules 24 (Obstructions) and 25 (Abnormal Ground Conditions) prohibit a player whose ball is through the green or in a hazard from taking relief by dropping or placing the ball on the green. However, Rules 26-1b and 26-1c (Water Hazards) and 28b and 28c (Ball Unplayable) impose no such restrictions, and in fact, require a ball to be dropped.

Therefore, a player whose ball is in a lateral water hazard close to the edge of a putting green may well find that the spot, no nearer the hole and within 2 club lengths of the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard, is actually on the putting green. In this instance, the ball must be dropped, not placed, on the green, as required in Rule 26-1c. The same would apply if the point on the equidistant opposite margin of the water hazard resulted in a similar outcome. The position of the flagstick is obviously significant in this situation.

Another example of a Rule which would require a ball to be dropped rather than placed on a putting green is Rule 28 (Ball Unplayable). Rules 28b and 28c make no provision for a ball to be placed, even on a putting green, but rather state that the ball must be dropped. Suppose a ball came to rest and could be identified in the branch of a tree overhanging a putting green. If the player declares his or her ball to be unplayable and takes relief under Rule 28, one option is to drop a ball within 2 club lengths, no nearer the hole, of the point immediately below the place where the ball lies in the tree (Rule 28c). Even if the area within 2 club lengths is on the green, the player must drop, not place, the ball (See Decision 28/11). 

Similarly, a player who finds his or her ball in an unplayable position close to a green, say in a large clump of reeds, may find that the area, not nearer the hole and within 2 club lengths of the spot where the ball is at rest, is on the putting green. Once again, the ball must be dropped, not placed. Again, also, the player’s action would depend on the location of the flagstick at any particular time.

Note that Rules 26a and 28a require a player who chooses to proceed under stroke and distance to comply with Rule 20-5 in playing a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played. According to Rule 20-5, if the stroke is to be replayed from the teeing ground, the ball may be played from anywhere on the teeing round and may be teed; through the green, the ball must be dropped; on a putting green, the ball must be placed. Therefore, a player who hits an overly enthusiastic putt from a putting green into a very deep bunker, and decides to declare the ball unplayable and proceed under Rule 28a, would, in this case, place the ball on the green as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was played. Similarly, if the ball on the green has been putted into a water hazard and the player decides to proceed under Rule 26a, the ball must be placed on the green as nearly as possible to the spot where it originally lay.

Placing a Ball Off the Green

There are also instances where a player is required to place a ball at a spot which is not on a putting green. A player who is entitled to take relief under the Rules for a ball at rest on a putting green, for interference or intervention on the line of play by a condition such as an Immovable Obstruction or an Abnormal Ground Condition, may find that the nearest point of relief or maximum available relief is off the green. The player would be required to place the ball at this point, rather than to drop it within one club length. An example of this would be when casual water or GUR intervene on a player’s line of putt for his or her ball at rest on a putting green and the player elects to take relief under Rule 25-1b(iii), only to find that the nearest point of relief is off the green. In this instance, although the player may be expecting to drop the ball within a club length of the nearest point of relief, no nearer the hole, in fact he or she is required to place the ball at the nearest point of relief or maximum available relief (see Decision 25-1c/10.5, which also includes a useful diagram). Note that this example refers only to a ball which is originally at rest on the putting green. If the original ball was off the green, no relief for intervention on line of play would be available.

Resumption of Play after a Suspension

Generally speaking, for a ball at rest through the green or in a hazard which has been moved and where the exact spot at which it originally lay cannot be determined, the player must estimate the original position of the ball and must drop a ball as nearly as possible to this spot (see Rule 20-3c). This example would apply, for example, in any circumstance where the ball has been moved by an outside agency such as a bird, animal, vehicle or another person. If the ball were originally at rest on a putting green, the player must estimate its original position and place a ball at this spot.

However, after a suspension of play where a player has marked and lifted his or her ball, or has left the ball in place, and the ball or marker have been moved during the suspension, the player must estimate the original position of the ball and place a ball at that spot. This requirement to place the ball applies throughout the course, not simply on a putting green (see Rule 6-8d and Rule 20-3c: Exception).

Correcting an incorrect placement or drop

The penalty for placing a ball which should have been dropped, or dropping when a ball should have been placed under any Rule, is 2 strokes in stroke play and loss of hole in match play. However, provided the player has not made a stroke at the ball, Rule 20-7 comes to the rescue! The player is permitted to lift a ball incorrectly placed or dropped and to proceed correctly, without penalty (Decision 20-6/1).

In stroke play, a player who is uncertain whether to drop or place the ball should consider playing two balls in accordance with Rule 3-3.  Note, however, that only two balls may be played; the playing of a third ball is prohibited (Decision 3-3/10). Therefore, since the player is not playing the ball from its original position, he or she takes the risk that neither the dropped nor the placed ball complies with the Rules (see Decision 3-3/0.5 for discussion of possible penalties).

In match play, if the player and opponent cannot agree on the correct procedure, two balls must not be played. The opponent may make a claim in accordance with Rule 2-5.