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SERVING THE GAME
Turning Over a New Leaf: Common Fall Occurrences on the Course September 22, 2023 | Liberty Corner, N.J. By Ron Driscoll & Danny Vohden

As summer turns to fall, learn how to handle common occurrences on the course. (USGA)

This content was first published in Golf Journal, a quarterly print and monthly digital publication exclusively for USGA Members. To be among the first to receive Golf Journal and to learn how you can help make golf more open for all, become a USGA Member today.

Every golfer has experienced the scenario as summer turns to fall: your drive misses the fairway by just a few yards – and ends up hidden in plain sight in a pile of leaves. Or that comfortable late afternoon nine-hole round suddenly turns into a sprint to the finish because of dwindling daylight.

In much of the country, the end of summer is signaled by cooler temperatures, shorter days and a new set of circumstances impacting golfers’ rounds.

How about this one? Your course has begun an offseason maintenance project – tree removal or an irrigation upgrade – and you suddenly find your ball sitting in a construction zone. This guide to fall golf will help you navigate common Rules situations, react to seasonal course conditions and help you continue to post scores, even when you can’t make it all the way to the final green. 

About that ‘Leaf Rule’

You know generally where your ball ended up, but there is a large pile of leaves and you’re confident your ball is somewhere under that pile. You are entitled to free relief only if the golf course or the Committee running a tournament has enacted Model Local Rule F-14, which allows areas with temporary accumulations of loose impediments (like a pile of leaves or grass clippings) to be treated as ground under repair. This means that you can take free relief for a ball that you know is in the pile, even if you can’t find it.

If this Model Local Rule is not in effect and you don’t find your ball within the maximum three minutes of search time, there is a penalty. You must proceed under Rule 18.2 (Ball Lost or Out of Bounds) and take stroke-and-distance relief for your lost ball, playing from the spot of the previous stroke and adding one penalty stroke. It’s a hard pill to swallow for a ball that may still be in play but not visible, and that’s why the Model Local Rule is an option for courses.

Your ball lands in a pile of leaves - what are your options? (USGA)

Loose impediments and ground under repair

If you find your ball, you are welcome to remove loose impediments from around it, such as stones, loose grass and leaves, including in a bunker or penalty area. Note that objects are not considered “loose” if they are attached or growing, solidly embedded in the ground, or sticking to the ball. You need to be careful not to move your ball while removing a loose impediment – if the ball moves, it’s a one-stroke penalty and you must put the ball back. The only exception is when you’re on the putting green. In that case, just put the ball back where it was and play on without penalty.

Let’s say fall maintenance projects include tree removal or a new irrigation system – any holes or trenches created during those types of projects are considered “ground under repair,” and you’re entitled to free relief. Just find the nearest point of complete relief and drop your ball within one club-length of that point not nearer the hole (see Rule 16.1).

Those pesky aeration holes

In many parts of the country, fall is a popular time for aerating greens, tees and fairways. This process creates channels in the soil for air and water while removing thatch, a buildup of organic matter that slows drainage and keeps roots from growing deep. The short-term disruption is outweighed by the long-term benefits to turf health and playing conditions.

Similar to the leaf issue, aeration holes are not automatically considered ground under repair and relief is not allowed unless a Model Local Rule (E-4) is in effect. This Local Rule only provides relief when the ball lies in or touches an aeration hole, and excludes relief for interference only with the player’s stance or line of play. By the way, if your ball in motion deflects off a loose impediment, such as a plug left behind by aeration, you must play it as it lies with no penalty.

Starting in 2024, 9-hole scores will factor into a player’s Handicap Index calculation right away. (USGA)

Time for 9 holes?

Although shorter days may make it a bit challenging to get in a full 18-hole round, the World Handicap System™ (WHS) allows 9-hole scores to be posted for handicap purposes. In fact, the popularity of 9-hole play has increased each year since the WHS launched in 2020. Through July 2023, 29.3% of all scores posted by female players are 9-hole rounds, and 15.2% of all scores posted by male players are 9-hole rounds.

If we focus the data specifically on new players with a Handicap Index® (those who have established one within the past year), the percentages are even higher.  

Currently, when a 9-hole score is posted for handicap purposes, it is combined with an existing 9-hole score (if one exists in the player’s scoring record) or it waits to be combined with their next 9-hole score to create an 18-hole Score Differential™. However, with 9-hole play now being so prevalent, the WHS is updating the treatment of 9-hole scores with its upcoming 2024 revision to allow 9-hole scores to factor into a player’s Handicap Index calculation right away. More information about changes to the WHS for 2024 will be available later this year at usga.org/whs. 

Tough sledding

We have all encountered trying conditions on the course, and those are more likely as the weather turns colder – and perhaps wetter and windier, too. That’s where the playing conditions calculation (PCC) comes into play. The PCC compares the actual scores made each day to the expected scores of the players who made them. If the scores are significantly higher (or lower) than expected, then an adjustment is applied within each player’s Score Differential™ calculation to better represent their performance on that day. One note: at least eight scores must be posted at a particular course on the day of play for the PCC to be calculated – so encourage your friends to post their scores on the same day they play.

Just as there is a Model Local Rule option for aerated greens, your course’s Handicap Committee may temporarily suspend score posting due to poor putting surfaces. If not, you should putt it out – the use of an “automatic two-putt” is not acceptable for handicap purposes. Similarly, when preferred lies are in effect, the Handicap Committee should determine whether scores can be posted. Just check with the golf shop before you play.