A bunker is defined as a hazard, which means that you can’t ground your club, or touch or move a loose impediment, if your ball is in a bunker. In addition, the options available under the unplayable ball rule (Rule 28) are restricted when your ball is in a bunker. However, it may not always be readily apparent whether your ball is in fact in a bunker.
On the vast majority of courses which feature well-defined, manicured bunkers, players rarely confront the bunker identity dilemma. One notable exception was Dustin Johnson’s tragic experience in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2010, when he hit his tee shot on the 18th hole Sunday outside the gallery ropes and found his ball resting on sand — which was strewn in some areas with grass and was hard-packed from spectators who had strolled through the area. Johnson (who had not read the local rules sheet) had no idea he was in a bunker, and grounded his club. The 2-stroke penalty cost him a place in the playoff.
Some courses contain what are casually known as “waste areas” — large bunker-like areas through which carts can traverse. These typically are not treated as hazards under local rules, so that you may ground your club or remove loose impediments. (Many observers thought this would have been an appropriate rule for remote bunkers at Whistling Straits.)
Questions can also arise concerning the margins or unusual features of bunkers. For example, sand which has spilled over the margin of the bunker is not part of the bunker. Nor is “grass-covered ground” bordering or within a bunker, or a tree in a bunker, part of the bunker.
At the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club last week, Steve Stricker’s ball came to rest at the front of a bunker with overhanging shrubbery, creating an unplayable lie. Rule 28 provides three options (all involving a penalty stroke): (1) play from the spot where you played the original ball; (2) drop the ball on a line demarcated by the position of the ball and the hole, going as far back as you desire; or (3) drop within two club-lengths no nearer to the hole. However, if your ball is in a bunker, under options (2) and (3) the ball must be dropped in the bunker.
It appeared that Stricker would have to drop in the bunker, but a rules official determined that, although his ball was resting on sand, it was actually outside the margin of the bunker. Accordingly, he was permitted to drop in the rough about thirty yards behind the bunker, which provided him a clear shot to the hole. A good break. Stricker could have used some more good breaks Sunday when he hit two balls out of bounds on the second hole, took an 8, and shot himself out of contention.
So, just because your ball is resting on sand, don’t assume it’s in the bunker. If it’s outside the margin of the hazard you may ground your club, remove loose impediments, and possibly have better options if you declare your ball unplayable.
Jack Ross completed an intensive PGA/USGA rules workshop and has officiated at state amateur competitions. Rules inquiries may be directed to email@example.com.