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How to Play Penalty Shots in Golf

Penalty shots are an unfortunate part of every golfer’s life. You may find yourself in a variety of penalty situations during a game of golf. Here are the most common ones:

  • Out-of-bounds: When you hit your ball to a spot outside the confines of the golf course — over a boundary fence, for example. Out-of-bounds areas are usually marked with white stakes that are about 30 yards apart. If you’re outside that line, you’re out-of-bounds (often abbreviated with the dreaded initials O.B.).

    If you hit a ball out of bounds, you’re penalized stroke and distance. You must drop another ball (or tee up if the shot you hit out-of-bounds was from a tee) as near as possible to the spot you just played from. Say that shot was your first on that hole. Your next shot will count as your third on that hole (the shot you hit out, the stroke penalty, and then your shot).

  • Unplayable lies: Inevitably, you’re going to hit a ball into a spot from which further progress is impossible. In a bush. Against a wall. Even buried in a bunker. When the unplayable lie happens (and you are the sole judge of whether you can hit the ball), your situation dictates your options. In general, you have three escape routes:

    • Pick up the ball and drop it — no nearer the hole — within two club lengths (take your driver and place it end-to-end on the ground twice) of the original spot under penalty of one shot.

    • Pick up the ball, walk back as far as you want, keeping that original point between you and the hole, and then drop the ball. Again, it’s a one-stroke penalty.

    • Return to the point where you hit the original shot. This option is the last resort because you lose distance, as well as adding the penalty shot.

  • Water hazards: Whenever you see yellow stakes, you know the pond/creek/lake in question is a water hazard. If you hit into a water hazard, you may play the ball as it lies (no penalty), or if the ball is unplayable, choose from these options (with a one-shot penalty):

    • Hit another ball from the spot where you just hit (into the water hazard — try to avoid that this time!).

    • Take the point where your ball crossed the water hazard and drop another ball (you can go back as far as you want, keeping that point between you and the hole).

  • Lateral water hazards: If you’re playing by the seaside, the beach is often termed a lateral water hazard. Red stakes mean lateral. Your options are either to play the ball as it lies (no penalty, but risky), or choose one of the following (with a one-stroke penalty):

    • Drop a ball at the point where the ball last crossed the boundary of the hazard — within two club lengths, no nearer the hole.

    • Drop a ball as near as possible to the spot on the opposite margin of the water hazard, the same distance from the hole.

    • Hit another ball from within two club lengths of the spot you just hit from.

    • Take the point where the ball crossed the water hazard and drop another ball as far back as you want, keeping that point between you and the hole.

  • Airballs: Airballs happen early in the life of a golfing beginner. You make a mighty swing and miss the ball. The penalty? None, actually. But you must count that swing as a stroke.

    If you swing at a ball with intent to hit it, that’s a shot regardless of whether you make contact. You can’t say, “That was a practice swing.” If you meant to hit the ball, your swing counts as a stroke.

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