The Golfer's Guide to Winter Rules: Proceed With Confidence in Every Situation

By Nick Heidelberger

Golfer lifts his ball from mud

For avid golfers, there’s no better feeling than heading back to the course after a long, cold, dark winter. But those exciting early spring rounds are often played on less than ideal course conditions. Soggy fairways lead to muddy — and worse, plugged — balls, and standing water in all the wrong places.

Thankfully, the USGA offers the option of a Local Rule that allows golfers to persevere through wet course conditions. When in effect, Preferred Lies, often referred to as “Winter Rules” or “playing it up”, help golfers navigate a golf course recovering from heavy snow, spring thaws, or prolonged rain that either caused damage to the course or prevented the grounds crew from properly maintaining it.

In addition to the Local Rule, there are permanent Rules cemented into the Rules of Golf to protect golfers from unfair consequences of a wet course, including embedded balls and standing water. The Rules of Golf can be a tricky, complicated beast, so here’s a breakdown of how to proceed in some common circumstances the next time you play on a soggy golf course.

NOTE: You’re going to run into the term “general area” several times in this article. That term more or less refers to the fairway and rough, but here’s the USGA’s official definition:

The area of the course that covers all of the course except for the other four defined areas: (1) the teeing area you must play from in starting the hole you are playing, (2) all penalty areas, (3) all bunkers, and (4) the putting green of the hole you are playing.

When Are Winter Rules in Effect?

The Rules of Golf state “When occasional local abnormal conditions might interfere with fair play, the affected parts of the course can be defined as ground under repair…When such conditions are widespread on the course the Committee can choose to adopt a Local Rule for “Preferred Lies” (also known as “Winter Rules”) to allow fair play or to help protect the fairway.”

So, who is this “Committee” that decides when Winter Rules are in play? The Committee is defined as “the person or group in charge of the competition or the course.” If you’re playing in an organized competition, the tournament organizers will make this determination. Outside of a formal event, your facility may alert you if Winter Rules are in effect when you check-in, or you may assume the role of the committee and take it upon yourself to decide if Winter Rules are a go.

How to Proceed Under Winter Rules

The model local rule allows a player whose ball lies in the general area cut to fairway height or less to take free relief by placing the original ball or another ball within a specified relief area (one club length, six inches, one scorecard length, for example) from the spot of the original ball that is not nearer to the hole and is in the general area. Before replacing your ball, feel free to clean off any mud it has collected. This process is also known by its very descriptive nickname: lift, clean and place.

The USGA does not recommend implementing Winter Rules outside of the fairway, which could entitle your playing partner to free relief from a situation that might otherwise be unplayable. You wouldn’t want that, would you? The USGA does, however, still want you to post your score for handicap purposes after your round, whether or not Winter Rules were in effect.

Other Course Condition Procedures

The Rules outlined above cover Preferred Lies, but there are other Rules in effect at all times that take course conditions into consideration. You’ll need to be familiar with procedures for embedded balls and standing water before you tee it up in wet or soggy conditions.

Embedded Ball

Whether or not Winter Rules are in effect, you are entitled to free relief for an embedded ball in the general area. Your ball is deemed to be embedded when it is in its own pitch-mark as a result of your previous stroke and when part of the ball is below the level of the ground. If you find yourself in this situation, simply mark your reference point in the spot right behind the embedded ball, and drop within one club-length of that reference point, no nearer to the hole and within the general area.

Outside of the general area, players aren’t as protected from an embedded ball. Of course, on the putting green you can mark, lift, clean and replace your ball, and fix any pitch-mark. However, you are not entitled to relief from an embedded ball in a bunker or penalty area.

Embedded Ball That Cannot Be Found

Anybody who has played golf on a wet course in the spring has probably hit what they thought was a perfect shot down the middle of the fairway, only to never find the ball. A soggy fairway can swallow your ball entirely and leave no trace. If this happens to you, you may be entitled to relief.

If you get to your ball’s landing spot and find an abnormal course condition — such as temporary water or ground under repair — but can’t find your ball, you are entitled to free relief if you can meet the known or virtually certain standard. Known or virtually certain means that “either there is conclusive evidence that the event in question happened to your ball, such as when you or other witnesses saw it happen, or, although there is a very small degree of doubt, all reasonably available information shows that it is at least 95 percent likely that the event in question happened.”

In essence, if you know or are at least 95 percent certain that your ball is plugged in the fairway (or rough) and temporary water is present, you are entitled to free relief.

Standing Water in a Bunker

If you find your ball in standing water in the bunker, you’ll have options, but you might not like them. Assuming you’d like to forego your option to play the ball as it lies, you may find the nearest point of complete relief in the bunker and no nearer to the hole, and drop within one club-length. If complete relief is not available, you may take free maximum available relief under the same procedures outlined above. If you still don’t like any of your relief options, you also have the option to drop the ball outside of the bunker by going back-on-the-line any distance you choose as long as you keep the point where your ball lies between you and the hole. This option, however, will cost you one penalty stroke.

Standing Water on the Putting Green

When your ball is on the putting green and there is interference from an abnormal course condition - in this case, standing water - you get free relief at the spot of nearest complete relief not nearer to the hole, whether that be on the putting green or in the general area.

Standing Water in the General Area

You are entitled to free relief from an abnormal course condition, in this case, standing water, in the general area. Determine your nearest point of complete relief (reference point) and drop within one club-length of that point, no nearer to the hole. The ball must come to rest within that relief area and must be in the general area.

Go Play!

Playing on a soggy golf course can test anybody’s patience, but by following these Rules, that early spring round that you’ve been looking forward to for months doesn’t have to be ruined by mud balls and standing water.

References Rules of Golf

Image: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images Sport via Getty Images

About the Author

Nick Heidelberger is the Editor of GolfLink and an active member of the Golf Writers Association of America (GWAA). He covers all things golf, from the professional tours to rules, equipment, style, and golf history. In the years prior to joining GolfLink, he worked for the New England Section of the PGA of America. Nick has a degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and has been an avid golfer for more than 10 years.