Golf Rules: The Unplayable Lie Rule – You Must Know Your Options!

Your golf ball can end up in some crazy spots on the golf course. It is in these moments that you need to understand the unplayable lie rule.

The rules of golf can be tricky and your ability to properly apply them can help your scorecard. It could help you break 100 for the first time.

The unplayable lie rule comes with several options. The correct option for you will depend on the specific situation.

Below we will explore these options and discuss when you should use them.

Let’s get started!

unplayable lie

When Would You Use The Unplayable Lie Rule?

The unplayable lie rule in golf does come with a penalty stroke, so the natural question is “when would you use this rule?”.

It comes into play when your ball ends up in a spot that you can’t (or don’t want to) hit it, but it is not covered by other rules of golf.

If your ball ends up in a hazard (penalty area) that is marked by red or yellow stakes, you would leverage the penalty area rule.

If your ball is out of bounds (marked by white stakes) you would follow that rule. If you can’t find your ball, you would use the lost ball rule.

The unplayable lie rule applies when you find your ball in bounds, not in a hazard, but you are not comfortable playing the shot.

It may be impossible to play, dangerous to play or simply not smart. Regardless of the reason why you can always select to use this option.

unplayable lie

Let’s talk about a few situations.

Your ball is up against a tree trunk and you cannot make a swing at it. Your ball ends up in the middle of a large bush. Your ball is in waist-high, thick grass.

In these situations, using the unplayable lie rule might save you strokes.

What Options Does The Unplayable Lie Rule Allow?

When faced with a difficult situation on the golf course, it is important to know all of your options.

The unplayable lie rule provides you with 3 choices – each one comes with a one-stroke penalty. If you look this up on the USGA website it is rule 19.2.

Below we cover the 3 options in the order you should consider them.

unplayable lie

Option #1: Lateral Relief

The majority of the time that you use the unplayable lie rule, lateral relief will be your best option.

This allows you to take a drop within two club lengths (use your driver to measure) of where your ball is located. You cannot drop your ball closer to the hole.

Lateral relief works well if you are up against a tree or in some roots. The two club lengths can give you enough space to make a swing.

Your first step when you find your ball in a difficult situation is to assess if two clubs will move your ball far enough to let you hit a shot.

If so, take your drop, add a stroke, and continue playing the hole.

If two club lengths aren’t enough to improve your situation, you need to consider option #2.

unplayable lie

Option #2: Back-on-The-Line Relief

This piece of the unplayable lie rule allows you to move back to take a drop. Here is how it works.

You look at the flag on the hole you are playing. If you were to draw a line from the flag to your golf ball, you can take a drop on that line further from the hole.

You can back on that line as far as you want, but it must be on that exact line. This does come with a one-stroke penalty.

Let’s say your ball is in the middle of a large bush and two clubs lengths (Option #1) won’t get you out of the bush.

You can go back on the line 40 yards and now hit a shot over the bush.

There are times when this line from the flag to your ball would put you out of bounds or in even more trouble. If that is the case, you must proceed to Option #3.

unplayable lie

Option #3: Stroke and Distance Relief

The final option is what the USGA (United States Golf Association) calls “stroke and distance” relief. This is the same penalty as losing your golf ball or going out of bounds.

You return to the spot of your previous shot. Take a one-stroke penalty and replay the shot. Let’s walk through an example.

You hit a wild slice off the tee and your ball ends up in waist-high grass. Two club lengths (Option #1) don’t get you out of the high grass.

If you do “back on the line” relief (Option #2) you simply go farther into the high grass. Your only option is to take a stroke and distance relief (Option #3).

You return to the tee box and re-hit your tee shot. With the stroke penalty, you are now hitting your 3rd shot.

You may be wondering – why is this better than simply trying to hit the ball out of the high grass.

This is where you need to assess how severe your lie is in the grass. You might whiff it or duff it several times.

The unplayable lie rule might lead to a double bogey, but that is much better than making a 10!

No golfer enjoys taking the unplayable lie rule, but there are times it is the smart decision!

unplayable lie

The Unplayable Lie Rule When You Are In A Bunker (Sand Trap)

The unplayable lie rule is slightly different if your ball is in a bunker.

You still have the three options we outlined above, but if you take Option #1 or Option #2 you must drop your ball in the bunker.

The tough thing about dropping your ball in the bunker is that your ball will likely plug and this makes your next shot harder.

With this in mind, you do have one additional option under the unplayable lie rule when your ball is in the sand.

For a two-stroke penalty, you can take option #2 (back-on-the-line relief) and drop your ball outside of the bunker.

This option is rarely used because the two-stroke penalty is harsh. Most of the time you will be better off dropping the ball in the bunker or taking “stroke and distance”.

We hope you rarely have to use the unplayable lie rule, but when you need it, it is good to know all of your options!

Selecting the “right” choice for your specific situation on the course can save you strokes.

Up Next: Avoid The Unplayable Lie Rule By Improving Your Course Management

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Ray has been playing golf for 35+ years, including being part of his High School and College golf teams. While he still enjoys playing in amateur tournaments, Ray now focuses on growing the game of golf through teaching and coaching. He has two sons that both play golf competitively and loves spending time watching them compete. Ray continues to play in local amateur golf events and currently has a +2 handicap.

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