Relaxed Rules on Bunkers

Bunkers have always been defined as hazards under the rules of golf. In March, the USGA and R&A unveiled sweeping proposed revisions to the rules, which are slated to become effective in 2019 after a review period. (See https://www.golfcontentnetwork.com/news/usga-modernize-the-rules-of-golf/) The proposed changes relax the rules on bunkers. In doing so, they raise the question of whether bunkers should be treated similarly to water hazards.

The proposed rules would permit a player to touch or move loose impediments in a bunker. They may also touch the sand with a hand or club. However, players are not permitted to deliberately touch the sand with a hand, rake, or club to test the condition of the sand; touch the sand with a club while making a practice swing or during the backswing of a stroke; or ground the club in front of or behind the ball.

These are welcome changes which simplify the rule on touching the sand and provide relief from loose impediments in bunkers. The rules makers reasoned that the challenge from playing from a bunker should be the sand, not other objects.


Although bunkers and water hazards are both defined as hazards, they are governed by different sets of rules. Under Rule 28, a player generally may declare any ball unplayable, but a ball in a water hazard may not be declared unplayable. Relief must be taken in accordance with the options provided in Rule 26. One option is to drop the ball behind the hazard on a line demarcated by the hole and the spot where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard.

Generally, a player who declares his ball unplayable has three options:

(1) Play from the spot where the ball was played under the stroke-and-distance rule,

(2) Drop behind where the ball came to rest on a line demarcated by the hole and that spot (similar to the water hazard option); or

(3) Drop within two club-lengths. As in the case of relief from a water hazard, a one-stroke penalty applies.

However, things become more complicated when a ball in a bunker is declared unplayable. While the options noted above are available, an important restriction applies to options (2) and (3): the ball must be dropped in the bunker. Thus, if a player wants to take relief outside of the bunker, he must use the stroke-and-distance rule.

The proposed rules would permit a player to drop outside of the bunker, but at the cost of an additional penalty stroke (two strokes). The rules makers recognized that playing from bunkers – particularly those with steep walls – can be very challenging for some players, and that taking multiple strokes from bunkers presents problems in stroke play. Dropping outside the bunker may allow players who would otherwise pick up on a hole to avoid disqualification.

The option to drop outside the bunker is a laudable modification of the rules, but the two-stroke penalty for utilizing this option seems overly severe. If bunkers and water hazards are both defined as hazards, why should the rules for dropping from bunkers be more punitive? The USGA is concerned that a less severe penalty will encourage too many players to take relief. Perhaps.  But a one-stroke penalty should be sufficient to deter a proficient bunker player from declaring a ball unplayable. It would afford poor bunker players reasonable relief and speed pace of play.

Treating bunkers like water hazards might strike traditionalists as a radical proposal. However, it would make the game more enjoyable for many recreational golfers — one objective of the rules modernization initiative. The proposed rules changes are a step in that direction. Why not take them to their logical conclusion?