The unplayable ball rule (Rule 28) is probably one of the least understood rules among casual golfers. Knowing this rule can provide you with strategic options when you encounter difficulties.
Mike and Jim are playing a match. Jim has putted out for a bogey on a par 4 hole. Mike has a birdie putt from above the hole on a severely sloping, double tiered green. His putt slides by the cup, picks up speed, rolls onto the lower tier of the green and then proceeds to roll off the green into a cavernous bunker. Mike figures he’d be lucky to get out of the bunker, much less make bogey. Jim figures he’s won the hole. He’s shocked by what happens next.
“I’m declaring my ball unplayable,” says Mike. He lifts the ball from the bunker, places it at the spot from where he putted, holes the putt, and, with the one-stroke penalty imposed by Rule 28, takes a bogey, halving the hole. Jim is incredulous. “You can’t do that! You had to play the ball from the bunker!” Who is correct? Mike properly invoked the unplayable ball rule. The decision as to whether a ball is unplayable is completely within the discretion of the player.
It does not have to be in a hole, next to a rock or tree root, or in some other spot where playing is shot is impossible or impracticable. In short, unplayability is in the eye of the beholder. (The one exception is if the ball lies in a water hazard. In that case, player must apply the water hazard rules.)
Once a ball is declared unplayable, there are three options:
(1) Play a ball as nearly as possible from where the ball was last played.
(2) Drop a ball behind the spot where the ball lay anywhere along an imaginary line demarcated by that point and the hole. There is no limit how far back the ball may be dropped.
(3) Drop a ball within two club lengths of the spot where the ball lay (no nearer the hole).
If your ball is in a bunker, a restriction applies to options (2) and (3). The ball must be dropped in the bunker. However, option (2) might make sense if your ball is hopelessly plugged in the face of a bunker. It might make sense to take the stroke penalty and drop the ball at the rear of the bunker rather than to rack up multiple strokes flailing away at the embedded ball. Or, if you’re in a sinister pot bunker and see no realistic way of escaping, option (1) might make sense. You might be better off replaying the shot, even with the penalty stroke. In short, the unplayable ball rule lets you choose your battles.
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.