Written by Joyce McCann, 18ers Rules Chair.
First published in 2017. Updated to conform to the 2019 Rules.
Recently, an 18er was playing at a nearby club. Her shot on a par 3 landed in a bunker just short of the green and bounced up into grass overhanging the bunker (see picture). As she was searching for her ball, it rolled down into the bunker. What to do? Should she replace the ball? Should she play it from the bunker? Does she have to take a penalty stroke?
The first thing in deciding what to do in this situation is to know that the grass overhanging the bunker is not part of the bunker (Rule 12.1). It is part of the General Area – i.e., it is just like everything else on the hole she was playing except the teeing area, putting green, and penalty areas.
Thus, the Rules question is, what are the consequences if a player accidentally causes her ball to move while searching for it in the general area. In this example, under Rule 7.1, it was fine for the player to probe the overhanging grass with her club to try to find her ball. And, under Rule 7.4, after the player caused her ball to move during the search, she does not have to take a penalty stroke. But, she does then have to replace the ball as close as possible to its original position in the overhanging grass, and attempt what looks like an impossible shot. Note that, If the player’s fellow competitor (Stroke play), or opponent (Match play) had been helping in the search and caused the ball to move, there would also have been no penalty, but the ball would still have had to be replaced.
Once the ball had been replaced in the overhanging grass, if the player then decided the shot was indeed impossible, she could have declared the ball unplayable. She would then, by Rule 19 (Unplayable Ball), have had to take a penalty stroke. But, since her ball in the grass was in the General Area and not in the bunker, for only 1-penalty stroke one of her options would have been to take Back-on-the-Line Relief (Rule 19.2b), dropping the ball within 2-club lengths from a Reference Point of her choice that is on a line running from the hole through the spot of the original ball, with no limit on how far back on the line she chooses to designate the Reference Point (e.g., she could drop her all outside the bunker). Hopefully, she then would have hit the ball up on the green for a 1-putt.