As we head into the fall and winter golf seasons, it’s a good time to take a look at seasonal rules. This is a topic of some confusion. Let’s say you’re playing in October and your ball disappears into a heavy accumulation of leaves on the fairway or in the rough, and you are unable to find it. If the course has established a local rule treating accumulations of leaves as ground under repair, you are entitled to drop a ball without penalty within one club-length of the nearest point of relief. A rules decision advises that such local rules should be restricted to holes at which leaf trouble occurs. Keep in mind that, in order to take such relief, it must be “known or virtually certain” that your ball was lost in the leaves.
If a bunker is covered by leaves, you are permitted to remove enough leaves to identify your ball, but if you touch a leaf on your backswing you incur a 2-stroke penalty. However, courses may provide local rules treating accumulations of leaves in bunkers as ground under repair. Now let’s turn to the amorphous subject of “winter rules.” There are no provisions in the rules themselves concerning allowances for winter conditions. However, an appendix to the rules provides a model local rule in the case of conditions such as heavy snows, spring thaws, or prolonged rains that justify the use of “preferred lies” to promote fair play or help protect the course.
The model rule provides that a ball lying in a closely mown area (a fairway) through the green may be lifted, cleaned, and placed within a specified distance (six inches, a club-length). The player must mark the ball before lifting it. Frequently, courses place signs at the first tee stating that “winter rules” or “preferred lies” are in effect, without further guidance. The MGA recommends that such local rules be spelled out on a current local rules sheet or golf shop board, to avoid confusion. Clubs might also use e-mails or newsletters to explain local rules.
Autumn golfers often encounter dew and frost. Except on the teeing ground, a player incurs a 2-stroke penalty under Rule 13-2 if he removes dew or frost from an area immediately behind or to the side of the ball, or from the line of play or line of putt, if such removal would cause a potential advantage. If you’re a hardy winter golfer, you might encounter snow and ice on the course. Snow and ice may be treated as either loose impediments or casual water, at the option of the player. In the latter case, the ball must be dropped (or placed if on the putting green) within one club-length of the nearest point of relief.
Jack Ross completed an intensive PGA/USGA rules workshop and also contributes rules articles to ESPN.com.