Golf's Rule 17: Penalty Areas

Golf course penalty areas are covered under Rule 17.

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In the Official Rules of Golf, jointly written and maintained by the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Rule 17 is titled "Penalty Areas." ("Penalty areas" is a term introduced in the 2019 edition of the rule book mostly to replace the deprecated "water hazard" and "lateral water hazard.")

The purpose of the rule, as excerpted from the rule book, is this:

Rule 17 is a specific Rule for penalty areas, which are bodies of water or other areas defined by the Committee where a ball is often lost or unable to be played. For one penalty stroke, players may use specific relief options to play a ball from outside the penalty area.

It is the responsibility of golfers to know the rules, and the USGA and R&A have tons of resources on their respective websites to help us learn and understand. These are links directly to the text of Rule 17 that is found on the governing bodies' websites:

Summarizing Rule 17: Penalty Areas

In our Quick Intro to the Rules of Golf, we summarize Rule 17 as follows:

  • Penalty area margins are identified by red or yellow stakes or lines.
  • If your ball is in a penalty area, you may play it as it lies. If you cannot find it or do not wish to play it, add a penalty stroke and do one of the following: a) drop and play another ball from where you last played; b) drop a ball behind the area as far back as you wish on a straight line from the hole, keeping where your ball last crossed the margin between the hole and where you drop the ball; or c) if it’s a red area, you may also drop a ball within two club-lengths of where the ball last crossed the margin, no nearer to the hole.

There are three sections within Rule 17 in the rule book. Here are those section titles plus links directly to those sections:

  • Rule 17.1: Options for Ball in Penalty Area
  • Rule 17.2: Options After Playing Ball from Penalty Area
  • Rule 17.3: No Relief Under Other Rules for Ball in Penalty Area

The Full Edition of Rule 17 on the R&A website includes a couple of videos to help explain the rule. On both the USGA and R&A sites, and in the physical rule book, there are multiple diagrams included in Rule 17. Those diagrams illustrate relief options for a ball in a yellow penalty area and for one in a red penalty area, among other things.

Be sure to read the full Rule 17, interpretations of Rule 17, and definitions of important terms either on USGA.org or RandA.org.