How To Handle A Hazard In Golf: Master The Rules Of Golf

The rules of golf can be tricky. Even experienced PGA tour professionals often call in an official to ensure they don’t make a mistake.

We want to help you play the game the right way. Today we are going to focus on how to handle a hazard in golf.

The first thing we need to deal with is golf terminology. Don’t be confused if you hear other players use the terms “hazard” and “penalty area”. They are the same thing!

In 2019, the USGA (United States Golf Association) changed the official term for a hazard in golf to “penalty area”. Most golfers still use the word “hazard”.

Below we will explore how you know if your ball is in a hazard, how you can play from a hazard, and your relief options.

A ball in the rough next to a red post to mark the hazard in golf.

What Is A Hazard In Golf?

The most common form of a hazard in golf is a body of water. A lake, river, or creek. They should be marked with red or yellow stakes (some courses will use paint).

There are slightly different rules for a yellow hazard in golf versus a red hazard. The color of the hazard determines how you can take relief (i.e. take a drop).

We explain relief options in detail below.

A golf course or a tournament committee can decide to make any area of the course a hazard. It doesn’t have to be a body of water.

For example, some courses will mark high grass or thick woods with red stakes. This can improve the pace of play because golfers can quickly take relief without having to find their golf ball.

If your ball is inside an area with red or yellow stakes (or paint) your ball has found a hazard in golf.

It is also possible that you will play a course that hasn’t been marked in a while.

If there are no stakes and/or the paint has faded, how do you know if your ball is in a hazard in golf?

Golf bag with four golf clubs inside next to a red post on the green golf course.

If a body of water is not marked, the general rule is that the water line defines the hazard line.

If high grass or thick woods is not marked it is simply part of the golf course. If you can’t find your ball, you have to follow the lost ball (stroke & distance) rule.

What You Can & Can’t Do If Your Ball Is In A Hazard

In 2019, the USGA did more than just change the official name of a hazard (to penalty area) – they also made some rules changes.

They made it legal for golfers to do certain things in a hazard. Below we have highlighted what you can now do and what you still cannot do.

We would hate for you to get in trouble for failing to follow the rules of golf!

  • CAN move loose impediments – you can remove rocks, sticks, and dead grass that might be in your way
  • CAN’T hit a provisional – unlike if you think your ball is out of bounds, if you think your ball is in a hazard, you cannot hit a provisional shot
  • CAN take a practice swing – before 2019 you couldn’t, but that rule has changed
  • CAN’T take free relief from a cart path or bridge – normally, if your ball came to rest on the cart path you would get a free drop, but that isn’t true if the path is located in a hazard in golf
  • CAN ground your club – before 2019 you couldn’t touch the ground before swinging, but that rule changed
A male golfer on a low bridge fishing his ball out of the water.

How To Proceed If Your Ball Is In A Hazard In Golf

We hope your ball always stays in the fairway and on the green, but realistically you will occasionally find yourself in a hazard in golf.

The good news is that you have options. 4 options for a red hazard in golf and 3 options for a yellow one.

Give your decision some thought. Selecting the correct option for your situation will help your scorecard look better at the end of the hole.

Related Article: 7 Golf Recovery Shots To Save You From Trouble On The Golf Course

Option #1: Play The Ball As It Lies (Red or Yellow Hazard)

If you find your ball in a hazard in golf, you can always choose to simply play the ball from its location. There is no penalty if you don’t take a drop.

Of course, there are times when this is impossible. If your ball is underwater (deep in a lake) you will have to select a different option.

Don’t take this decision lightly. Poor course management can cost you strokes and lead to frustration.

The first question you should ask yourself before playing from a hazard in golf. Can you get the ball back in play (back to the fairway)?

A red flag stick next to the water on a golf course.

When your ball finds a hazard in golf you may have an odd lie, a difficult stance, and rocks or trees impeding your swing.

If you aren’t confident you can make solid contact with the ball, the prudent decision would be to use one of your other options!

Option #2: Take “Stroke & Distance” Relief (Red or Yellow Hazard)

The 2nd option if you hit your ball into a hazard in golf is the most penal. This option is the same as when you hit a shot out of bounds.

“Stroke & Distance” means that you get a one-stroke penalty and you return to the spot where your last stroke was made.

For example, if you hit your drive into a large lake and decide this is your only option. You must add a stroke and re-hit the drive. You now lie 3.

This is only the best option if none of the others are possible. It is effectively a two-penalty.

Option #3: “Back On The Line” Relief (Red Or Yellow Hazard)

Option #3 is often the best choice if you hit your ball into a yellow hazard, but it also is the most confusing of the options.

A red circle drawn around a water body on a golf course.

Be careful with option #3 – this is a golf rule that players often mess up by accident.

First, you identify the location where your ball crossed the hazard line. Where did it enter the hazard?

Next, look at the flagstick on the hole you are playing. Use the flagstick and the spot your ball entered the hazard to draw a line.

For a one-stroke penalty, you can drop on that line as far back as you want to go (behind where your ball entered the hazard).

When taking “back on the line” relief, you can go 1 yard behind the spot where your ball entered the hazard or you can go 100 yards back.

Why would you go farther back? Instead of dropping in the rough, you might be able to go back another 10 yards and drop the ball in the fairway.

Always check with your playing partners to ensure they are satisfied that you are taking a legal drop.

Close up of a golf ball submerged in water, surrounded by pebbles and sand.

Option #4: Lateral Relief (Red Hazard Only)

If your ball ends up in a hazard in golf that is marked with red stakes or red paint, you have a 4th option to consider.

You can take “Lateral Relief”. Identify the spot where your ball crossed the hazard line (where did it enter the red hazard).

For a one-stroke penalty, you can drop your ball within two club lengths (use your driver) of the spot where your ball crossed the hazard line.

The drop cannot be closer to the hole than the spot your ball entered the hazard.

Lateral relief is the most frequently used rule for areas marked as a red hazard.

It is important to remember – you cannot use this rule if your ball ends up in a yellow hazard.

Make The Right Decision If Your Ball Is In A Hazard In Golf

It happens to all of us. You are trying to hit a shot down the fairway, but unfortunately, it hooks or slices into a hazard.

A golf course with many ostriches. running through on a sunny day.

You now have to decide how to finish the hole and your decision will impact your score. Quickly walk through this decision process in your mind.

  • Step 1: Where did your ball enter the hazard (cross the hazard line)? Put a tee down in this location.
  • Step 2: Can you hit your ball from the hazard? Can you get it back “in play” without taking a penalty stroke? If yes, play it. If no, continue to step 3.
  • Step 3: Is the hazard marked with red or yellow stakes? If red, the “Lateral Relief” is typically the best option.
  • Step 4: You are in a yellow hazard or “lateral relief” won’t work, so determine your “Back on the Line” drop location.
  • Step 5: If all other options are unavailable or not desirable, it is time to go with “Stroke & Distance”. Go back to where you hit the shot, take your penalty, and replay the shot.

The key to great course management is minimizing the damage when your ball finds a hazard in golf. Save a bogey or a double bogey.

Avoid making a giant number and attack the next hole!

A female golfer looks into the distance, her club swung behind her.

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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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