Even though the main point of golf is to “play it as it lies”, sometimes that just doesn’t work. So the rules have several situations where you are allowed to take a penalty-free drop within one club length of the “nearest point of relief”. For example, if your ball comes to rest on a sprinkler head or a cart path (or close enough that the sprinkler head or cart path affect your stance or swing) you have the options of playing the ball as it lies or to take a “free drop” from the nearest point of relief. The rules call these conditions “Abnormal Conditions”, and they include cart paths, sprinkler heads, ground under repair, piles of leaves or wood chips intended for removal, etc. They do not include tree branches, bushes, out of bounds fences or other parts of the course which are normal parts of the landscape.
This whole thing hinges on the definition of the “nearest point of relief”. I was playing in my regular weekend foursome and sliced the ball from the 16th tee and the ball came to rest on the cement cart path. Upon closer examination, the ball was closer to the right edge of the path than the left edge. Now a casual approach would be to pick up the ball and take my drop to the right of the path since the ball was closer to the right edge. However, this would have been an incorrect drop.
On a free drop, you can drop the ball within one club-length from its nearest point of relief, no closer to the pin. So what does that mean? The nearest point of relief is the shortest distance the ball would need to be moved. So, back to my cart path situation, the steps I took were:
* Identify the possible “nearest points of relief”. Since I would need to take full relief (meaning that I couldn’t still be standing on the cart path), I stood just right of the cart path, made a stance with a club and put a tee in the ground where the ball would need to be for me to make a swing at it. Then I stood to the left of the golf path and put a tee in the ground where the ball would need to be for me to not have the cart path affect my swing. Now I had two possible nearest points.
* If multiple possibilities exist for the “nearest point”, measure them! I took a club and measured how far the ball would need to be moved from its position on the cart path to the nearest point of relief right of the path and left of the path. As a right-handed player, my nearest point was to the left of the path — even though the ball came to rest closer to the right edge of the path.
* Once the nearest point has been identified, pull out your driver and measure one club length from that point, no closer to the hole, and put down a tee. Now you have an imaginary line between the two tees that measure your nearest point of relief and one club-length from that point.
* Hold the ball shoulder high and drop it between the tees and behind the imaginary line. If the ball lands between the tees and behind it and rolls to a point where it is still not closer to the hole than the imaginary line and did not roll more than two-club lengths, the ball is in play and you are ready to proceed without penalty.
When I took relief to the left of the path (thereby giving me a better second shot on this par 5 hole) instead of the right side of the path (which would have left me with many trees to try to punch through), my playing partners protested. After all, their thought was that I needed to be to the right of the path and without a shot. A simple refresher of the rule and a demonstration of how the nearest point was measured was enough to turn their howls of protest into mere grumbling about my good fortune, although they do whine about it to this very day.
Two additional points about taking a drop that you should be aware of —
* If you take relief, you must take full relief. That means if you are on a cart path and go through the steps to take a free drop, if after taking a legal drop your stance or swing is either still affected by the cart path or if there is now something else in your way (like a sprinkler head or a curb) you just repeat the procedure from where your ball now lies. (I played against a man in a match play situation where his ball was on the path, he took relief but one of his feet was still on the curb of the path. Ouch. He played the ball from a bad drop. In stroke play, it’s 2-strokes. In match play, he loses the hole.)
* If you believe you are entitled to relief, but your playing partners or opponents don’t believe it to be the case, the way to proceed is to play two balls: one from the original position and one from where you took your free-drop after measuring. At your next opportunity, check in with the pro at the course — or rules official if it is a tournament — and explain the situation. She or he will rule whether you were entitled to a drop or not and you can record the appropriate score. Generally speaking, though, if you think that something that is an abnormal condition is in your way you are entitled to relief.
USGA Rule 25-1
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