Rules Throwback: Unplayable? Not If Your Opponent Can Prove You Wrong June 2, 2017 By Jamie Wallace, USGA

Today, this ball can be declared unplayable without objection. In the early days of the game, that wasn't the case. (USGA/Chris Keane)

The current Rule addressing an unplayable lie (Rule 28 – Ball Unplayable) leaves the decision as to when a ball is unplayable completely up to you, the player. But what if your opponent had a say in the matter?

In the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews Rules code of 1851, the player required “the consent of his adversary” to declare a ball unplayable and drop it for a one-stroke penalty. So if your opponent thought your ball was playable, he was given the opportunity to make two strokes with your ball in an attempt to move it to a playable position. If he succeeded, the two strokes your opponent made count in your score, and you must then continue play of the hole. The idea for this practice actually came from an earlier 1828 code from Burntisland Golf House Club.

This rule clearly must have led to disputes, especially about when a ball became “playable” after the opponent’s two strokes. It appears that this was the case for the golfers of St. Andrews as this was a short-lived Rule that was changed just five years later, in 1856.

However, this practice of requiring the opponent’s consent to declare a ball unplayable continued at other golf clubs throughout much of the late 1800s, with a number of entertaining variations. One code from Panmure Golf Club gave the opponent three strokes at the player’s ball to get it to a playable position rather than two strokes. Another code from the Liverpool Golf Club added the twist that if the opponent attempted to make the player’s ball playable and failed to do so, the strokes actually counted in the opponent’s score and the player was allowed to drop their ball for the standard one-stroke penalty. In 1883, Lanark Golf Club actually decided that the playable/unplayable distinction would determine the outcome of the hole – if the opponent successfully extricated the player’s ball in three strokes or fewer, they won the hole; and if they failed to do so, they lost the hole.

Jamie Wallace is the manager of Rules Education and Digital Content for the USGA. Email him at

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