Confusing Golf Rule #1: Red Stakes & Yellow Stakes

A few weeks ago I was golfing with a few friends in Albuquerque, one of whom had just finished the USGA’s all-day rules course.  During our round, Fred put a ball into the desert scrub to the right of the rough and we could see from the tee that there were red stakes on the edge of the rough indicating it was a hazard.  Great, Fred was a newly-minted USGA golf rules genius so he would immediately know exactly what to do.  Wrong.  Fred tried to remember the difference between red stakes and yellow stakes and all that meant.  Fred did end up deciding what to do correctly, but it was touch and go there for a while.

Let’s make it easy.  Red stakes (or red lines around the hazard) and yellow stakes (or yellow lines) are almost the same.  There are three options you have for both red and yellow stakes, and you have an two extra options with red stakes.  Let’s start with the ones that are the same for either red or yellow:

Hit it out of there.  Option 1:  You can play it as it lies.  Don’t move it, don’t touch it, just get in there and hit it out.  There is no penalty stroke assessed.  Just like this:  Tiger Woods Hits Out of Water Hazard

Go back and replay it.  Option 2:  You can go back to where to last hit and try it again taking a one stroke penalty.  This can be confusing, however.  Let’s say you are on a par 3 hole, and you put your tee shot into a lake.  You decide to choose this option and hit again from the tee.  The ball goes in the hole!  What’s your score?  Par.  One in the water, one penalty and one for hitting it again.    (I nearly had this happen that same day in Albuquerque on a very windy afternoon.  On a par 3, I pulled my first shot into the red-staked crap and my best option was to replay it.   Aiming way right to account for the wind and my fear of being back in the scrub, I ended up putting it within 6 inches to the hole.  Routine bogey.)

Point and Drop.  Option 3:  This is the most complex but can be the most rewarding even though it comes with a one stroke penalty.   Do the best you can to identify the spot where the ball last crossed over the hazard line before coming to rest in the hazard.   Go to that point and stand at a right angle and point to the flagstick with your right arm.  Now raise your left arm and point in the opposite direction.  You can drop your ball anywhere on the imaginary line between you and where your left arm is pointing, until that line goes out of bounds.   Not a club-length off that line.  On the line.  If you drop your ball off this line intentionally, well that’s a whole different penalty.  But back on this one, drop your ball on this imaginary line between where the ball crossed into the hazard, take a one stroke penalty and be on your way.

Additional Red Options.  These options are only available if the hazard is marked with red stakes or a red line, and the penalty here is one stroke.   For the first option, identify that spot where the ball last crossed over the hazard line before coming to rest in the hazard.  Go to that point, and measure off two club-lengths using your driver to the left of this point – but no closer to the hole – and put a tee in the ground.  Then measure off two-club-lengths to the right of the point where the ball crossed the hazard line, again no closer to the hole, and put another tee in the ground.  Finally, measure two-club lengths directly back from the point the ball crossed the hazard line and put a tee in the ground.  Now you have three tees in the ground and if you imagine it makes a semi-circle you can drop the ball anywhere in this semi-circle.  Another unofficial way to think about it is to stand at the point where the ball crossed over the hazard line and extend one arm so it is perpendicular to the hole.  Then spin around moving your arm away from the hole until you are standing backwards and your arm is now perpendicular to the hold again.   The area under where your arm moved is generally your drop area.    This is a good approximation, but you would still want to pull out your driver and measure it out.

You also have the option of going on the opposite side of the hazard.  First, you need to know how far from the hole the ball was when it last crossed the red line of the hazard.  Now, go to the opposite side of the hazard and find a spot of equal distance to the hole.  Then take a drop just like above, within two-club lengths and no closer to the hole.

A real-life example?  Tiger Woods, 2013 Masters.  On Saturday, Woods hit an approach shot to the 15th hole that hit the flagstick and rolled off the green and into the water.  You can watch it here:  Tiger Woods 2013 Masters Drop  Woods admitted that he moved back a couple of yards, dropped a ball and hit it on the green, taking a one stroke penalty.  This is probably just fine in buddy-golf, but in tournament golf it was an illegal drop.  Let’s review his options:

Just play it (Option 1) — not practical because the ball was sitting in the pond.

Go back and replay it (Option 2) — Woods may have been thinking that he was using this option, but by moving back a couple of yards he was not hitting again from the same place.   He would have needed to drop the ball as closely as possible to where he last hit to use this option.

Point and Drop (Option 3) — Woods may have been thinking that he was using this option, but he did not drop the ball on the imaginary line he would have drawn.  In fact, he wouldn’t have been close at all, since the point where the ball crossed the hazard was on the other side of the water and far to Woods’ left.

Magic Red Option — Clearly not used since Woods didn’t drop it close to the hazard.

So which option did Woods use?  None of them.  His drop was considered an illegal drop.  (Note that conspiracy theorists will debate why Woods was not disqualified, but that’s a different subject.)

So while you may want to play like Tiger, you will want to avoid taking a drop like Tiger did here.

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