Golf's Out of Bounds Rules, Penalties & Procedures

By Nick Heidelberger

ball out of bounds in rough

Going out of bounds is just about the worst possible result of a golf shot. The blunder will cost you one penalty stroke plus all the distance you could have gained from the shot, essentially amounting to a two-stroke penalty.

Once you’re hitting the ball straight with consistency, you won’t fear the treacherous “OB” penalty quite so much, but it’s a penalty and procedure every golfer should be aware of, no matter how straight they hit the ball.

Out of Bounds Definition

Out of bounds in golf is defined by white stakes or paint. Holes with out of bounds in play are also usually indicated on the back of the scorecard, so it’s always a good idea to check at the start of your round.

Out of bounds is generally just that, outside of the boundaries of the property owned by the golf course. However, golf courses can dictate other areas out of bounds on the course, for example, a practice area or an adjacent hole deemed to be internal out of bounds.

The Rules of Golf insist hitting out of bounds results in a one-stroke penalty, but the distance the Rules take away from you really makes it a two-stroke swing. That’s because the procedure for hitting out of bounds requires you to play your next shot from the same spot as your previous shot, resulting in a penalty of stroke and distance.

Procedure for Hitting Out of Bounds

Depending on where you were when you hit your ball out of bounds, there are slightly different procedures for putting your next ball in play.

Hitting Out of Bounds Off the Tee

If you hit your tee shot out of bounds, first of all, we’re very sorry to hear that and understand your pain. The good news is that this is the procedure here is pretty simple, just tee up another ball inside the teeing area, add one penalty stroke, and hit your third shot.

Out of Bounds from General Area

You’ve managed to get in play off the tee, but weren’t quite so lucky on your next shot. If you blow it out of bounds from the general area -- or a bunker or penalty area for that matter -- your procedure is slightly different than above.

In this circumstance, you must put your next ball in play via a drop. The reference point for your drop is the spot where you made your last stroke, and you have one club-length from that reference point in which to drop your ball, but it must be no nearer to the hole, and must be in the same area of the course as the reference point.

A brief aside, the five areas of the course are the teeing area, penalty areas, bunkers, the putting green, and the general area. That means if you were in a bunker, you must drop in the bunker. If you hit it out of bounds while attempting a hero shot from a penalty area, you’ve got to drop in the penalty area.

However, since the general area refers to anywhere on the course not covered by the other four areas, you could drop in the fairway after hitting out of bounds from the rough, given the fairway is within one club-length of where you made your previous stroke, no closer to the hole.

From the Putting Green

If you’ve managed to putt your ball not only off the green but literally off the golf course, the stroke-and-distance penalty may not be your biggest problem.

Nonetheless, proceed by adding a penalty stroke and placing your ball in the spot you hit your previous shot, or an estimation if that exact location is not known. Note, you don’t use a drop on the green.

Provisional Ball

If you’ve hit a shot and you’re not sure if it has come to rest out of bounds, it is strongly recommended, for pace of play’s sake, to hit a provisional ball. Simply declare to your playing partners that you’re hitting a provisional ball and use the procedures outlined above.

This provisional ball remains provisional until it is either played from a spot nearer to the hole than the original ball, or you have abandoned all hope of finding your original ball in bounds.

By hitting a provisional ball, you save yourself possibly the worst experience one could have on a golf course, the requirement to trek back to the spot you hit your previous shot to play again. This is particularly uncomfortable when there is an impatient foursome waiting for you to clear.

Lost Ball Procedure

If you’re searching for a shot that you believe to be in bounds, you have three minutes to find the original ball. If you’re unable to find your ball in this three-minute time limit, the ball is deemed to be lost and you utilize the same procedure you would were the ball out of bounds.

Local Rule: Alternative to Stroke and Distance

Knowing that not every golfer adheres to the stroke and distance penalty, backtracking to the previous spot to play their next ball, the USGA announced a local rule as an alternative to stroke and distance. It is up to the course or tournament committee to put this local rule in effect, and if it is, a player who either loses their ball or hits their ball out of bounds may take relief for two penalty strokes.

To utilize this procedure, first determine where your ball is lost or went out of bounds. Next, find the spot on the nearest edge of the fairway, no closer to the hole. From there, you may drop your ball up to two club-lengths outside of either point, or anywhere in between, no nearer to the hole. If you hit a tee shot out of bounds and utilized this procedure, you would hit your fourth shot from the fairway.

You cannot use this procedure if you hit a provisional ball, and it’s also important to understand that this is not part of the Rules of Golf, instead, it is an optional local rule that facilities or committees may enact.

Final Thoughts

As frustrating as it can be to hit a ball out of bounds, the best thing you can do is to put that shot behind you and keep calm. The stroke and distance penalty is enough damage, there’s no need to compound the mistake by following it up with a series of poor decisions made out of frustration. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

About the Author

Nick Heidelberger is the Editor of GolfLink. He has a degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and has been an avid golfer for more than 10 years. In the years prior to joining GolfLink, he worked for the New England Section of the PGA of America.