Official Updated Golf Rules on Playing From Bunkers

By Nick Heidelberger

Jordan Spieth examines ball in bunker

You just hit your approach shot into a green but a slight push, pull, or miscalculation has you in a bunker. You know that golf’s bunker rules have changed, but what exactly can you do in a bunker within the Rules of Golf, and what actions are still prohibited? Use the quick-reference dos and don’ts below if you need a quick answer, and check out the complete details to be confident the next time you’re on the course.

USGA Definition of a Bunker

The USGA defines five areas of a golf course, which combined cover the entire course. Those areas are the general area, teeing area, penalty areas, putting green, and bunkers. Bunkers are defined as “a specially prepared area of sand, which is often a hollow from which turf or soil has been removed.”

Quick Reference Bunker Rules

Before we take a deeper look at how to proceed when you’re in a bunker, here’s a quick-reference guide to get you out of the sand penalty-free.

Legal

Illegal

Penalty

Removing loose impediments or movable obstructions (stones, leaves, rakes, etc.).

Deliberately touching the sand (including with your hand or objects such as a club or rake) to test its consistency.

General Penalty (2 strokes in stroke play, loss of hole in match play).

Touching the sand with your club elsewhere in the bunker, including accidentally, as long as it is not to test the sand condition.

Touching the sand with your club behind or in front of the ball, with a practice swing, or with your backswing.

General Penalty

Raking the bunker anywhere once your ball is out of the bunker, or raking the bunker in a way that does not improve your conditions when your ball is still in the bunker.

Raking the bunker to improve your lie, stance, or line of play while your ball is in the bunker, or use of a rake to test the condition of the sand.

General Penalty

Bunker Rule Changes

If some of those procedures surprise you, that’s probably because the 2019 Rules of Golf came with some updates to bunker rules. With the updated rules, you’re now allowed to remove loose impediments in a bunker, and touch the sand when not attempting to judge the condition of the sand.

Here’s a quick look at how the new Rules differ from what you may be accustomed to from the past.

New Rule

Old Rule

You may remove loose impediments in a bunker.

Illegal to remove loose impediments in a bunker.

You may ground your club in a bunker not directly in front of or behind your ball, not to test the condition of the sand, and not with a practice swing.

Illegal to touch the sand with your club anywhere in a bunker for any reason.

You may take unplayable lie relief outside of the bunker for two penalty strokes.

No option to take relief outside of the bunker.

Grounding Your Club and Practice Swings in Bunker

The new Rules of Golf give you some leeway for grounding your club in a bunker, but you still need to be extremely careful. You cannot ground your club directly in front of or behind your ball. You can also not touch the sand with your club on a practice swing, or to test the condition of the sand.

You can, however, otherwise ground your club in a bunker. This could include accidentally, or using it for support as you enter or exit the bunker, or to prevent a fall.

Unplayable Lie in Bunker

If you determine your lie is unplayable in a bunker and you are not entitled to any free relief, you have options to move your ball that cost you one or two penalty strokes.

For one penalty stroke, you may drop the ball in the bunker within two club-lengths, no nearer to the hole, or utilize back-on-the-line relief, again remaining in the bunker.

If you refuse to play from in the bunker, the new Rules of Golf even allow you to drop outside of the bunker, but it costs two penalty strokes. If you choose this option, execute back-on-the-line relief as far back as you would like and drop. You can always play from where you made your last stroke, absorbing the stroke-and-distance penalty.

Plugged Ball in Bunker

Plugged ball in bunker

Unfortunately (or fortunately if it’s your opponent who’s asking), you do not get free relief for a plugged ball in a bunker. The embedded ball relief granted in the Rules of Golf only covers balls embedded in the general area, not bunkers. 

If you find yourself with a plugged ball in the bunker, you have a couple options. You can attempt to play it as it lies and hope for the best. Alternatively, you can determine the ball is unplayable, and proceed under the unplayable ball in a bunker procedure outlined above. If you choose that option, you can then choose whether you want to move your ball in the bunker for one penalty stroke, or outside the bunker for two penalty strokes.

The main takeaway here is, try to avoid plugged balls in the bunker if you can.

Standing Water in Bunker

Standing Water in bunker

Standing water, which the Rules of Golf refer to as temporary water, is considered an abnormal course condition, and the good news is that you get free relief from abnormal course conditions.

First, let’s define what exactly qualifies as temporary water.

The USGA defines temporary water as “any temporary accumulation of water on the surface of the ground (such as puddles from rain or irrigation or an overflow from a body of water) that is not in a penalty area, and can be seen either before or after you take a stance (without pressing down excessively with your feet).” The Rules are quick to point out that frost and dew are not temporary water, nor is the ground simply being wet. Water must accumulate to meet the temporary water standards.

When you find temporary water in a bunker that interferes with either your stance or your intended swing, you can take free relief by playing from the nearest point of complete relief within the bunker, no closer to the hole, or the point of maximum available relief within the bunker, no nearer to the hole. Alternatively, for one penalty stroke, you can drop outside of the bunker back on the line from the hole through where the ball lies.

Now You Know

Knowing the official Rules of Golf as they relate to bunkers can help you escape those pesky traps penalty-free and make you a smarter golfer. Now it's up to you to avoid bunkers, and perfect your technique from the sand just in case.

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.