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Short Course - Thoughts on Round 1"Playing the Course As You Find It"

The Practice Area: Introduction to Playing the Course as You Find It

It’s often said that once the principles behind the Rules of Golf are learned, the Rules themselves begin to come to life and can be more easily understood. Rule 8 is built on the principle that you must play the course as you find it and the physical conditions on the course cannot be altered to suit your desires. This principle supports the primary challenge and attraction of the game of golf in that it constantly tests your ability to overcome the conditions you encounter during a round.

While it’s helpful to think in terms of principles, there are also several defined terms you need to be familiar with to correctly apply this Rule.

As an aside, “definitions” are used in the Rules both for efficiency and clarity. Whenever they are used in the Rules, they will be written in italics. If you read a word in italics and do not know its exact meaning, there’s a chance you might also misunderstand how to apply a Rule. 

Rule 8 has two key definitions, starting with “conditions affecting the stroke.” If you read through this definition, you’ll see it is made up of a number of important concepts relating to the 5 protected areas. Those concepts include the:


Each of these bullet points has a specific meaning and you are encouraged to take a moment to read through the related definitions (liestanceline of play and relief area). Doing so now will help you to understand what areas are protected by this definition (and just as important, what areas are not protected!) as we discuss how Rule 8 works.

The second key definition you need to know is “improve.” The USGA Rules team gets a lot of questions asking if an action is a breach of Rule 8. For example:

“I was playing with someone who knocked a leaf out of a tree during a practice swing… that’s a penalty, right?”

These types of questions are difficult and we are rarely able to provide the black and white answer that the individual asking the questions is looking for. The reason for this circles back to the definitions used in this Rule.

Merely changing one of the protected areas is not enough to breach Rule 8 and get a penalty - in order to get a penalty, you need to improve one of the protected areas. “Improve” means that the change creates a potential advantage for you. You are likely to find Interpretation 8.1a/1 (Examples of Actions That Are Likely to Create Potential Advantage) and Interpretation 8.1a/2 (Examples of Actions Unlikely to Create Potential Advantage) to be helpful resources as you look to better understand the meaning of improve. Each Interpretation provides examples at either end of the spectrum. Somewhere in the middle is where you would cross the line and improve the conditions affecting the stroke. Deciding what creates an improvement becomes challenging and each individual Committee will have to make the final decision. In fact, if this happens to you during a competition, you may even be asked to reenact what happened so that a referee or the Committee can better understand the facts before making a ruling. Without being able to see the situation first-hand (and because it’s often reported second or third hand), you can see why it’s so difficult to give a black and white answer to these types of questions over the phone.


The Starting Area and the Front Nine (Questions 1-9)

Hole 1

Question: In stroke play, a stake supporting a small tree interferes with your swing. It cannot be readily removed, so you break it. What is the ruling?

(a) There is no penalty.
(b) You get one penalty stroke.
(c) You get the general penalty.


With those definitions fresh in your mind, let’s start the round on Hole 1. The facts of the question make it clear that the stake supporting the small tree is an immovable obstruction. It’s an artificial object, which places it in the obstruction category - then you must determine if it is movable or immovable. Since the question notes it cannot be removed easily, it is an immovable obstructionRule 8.1a restricts you from moving, bending or breaking an immovable obstruction if that would improve one of the conditions affecting the stroke. In this question, you improved the area of intended swing by breaking the stake and earned the general penalty (loss of hole in match play or two strokes in stroke play) for breach of the Rule.


Holes 2 and 3

Question 2: Which one of the following does not result in you getting a penalty when doing so improves the conditions affecting the stroke?

(a) Scooping a small amount of temporary water from the hole with a paper cup without touching the hole.
(b) Before playing a stroke from the general area near the putting green, you remove a small amount of dew from just in front of your ball on the line of play.
(c) Moving a natural object to see if it is loose so long as you return it as nearly as possible to its original position if found not to be loose

Question 3: You may take reasonable actions to mark the spot of your ball even if doing so improves the conditions affecting the stroke.

(a) True
(b) False


Holes 2 and 3 explore the relationship between Rule 8.1a and Rule 8.1bRule 8.1a prohibits certain actions in support of the basic principle behind the Rule - and notes that those actions are not allowed only when one or more of the conditions affecting the stroke is improvedRule 8.1b then seemingly relaxes that restriction by stating there are certain actions you may take that result in no penalty, even if one of the conditions affecting the stroke is improved.

As you look through each of these actions, you’ll see that they are, in effect, a set of common sense exceptions to the general prohibitions in Rule 8.1a and almost all come from specific permissions allowed in other Rules. Take note that this gives you a pretty good clue as to an unstated concept in the Rules - when you see two Rules that appear to contradict each other, remember that a specific permission often overrides a general prohibition. To get each of these two holes right, you must identify which actions may be taken under Rule 8.1b, even if one of the conditions affecting the stroke is improved.


Hole 4

Question: Before taking your stance, you remove a stake defining out of bounds that interferes with your line of play. You replace the stake before your stroke. What is the ruling?

(a) There is no penalty.
(b) You get one penalty stroke.
(c) You get the general penalty.


Hole 4 tests your awareness of a concept that allows you to un-do or fix certain mistakes to avoid a penalty. The key here is that the “fixing” must be done prior to making the stroke. This makes sense in that if you un-do whatever you did to give yourself the potential advantage before you make the stroke, there’s no reason you need to get a penalty - note that this doesn’t apply to all breaches, just those noted in Rule 8.1c. In this case, you need to eliminate the improvement by putting the stake (a boundary object) back in such a way that the line of play is no longer improved. By doing so, you can avoid the penalty.


Hole 5

Question: Before playing an approach shot over a greenside bunker to a tucked hole location, you walk 30 yards from your ball and into a greenside bunker to assess your line of play. While you are returning to your ball, your caddie rakes your footprints. What is the ruling?

(a) There is no penalty.
(b) You get one penalty stroke.
(c) You get the general penalty.


On Hole 5, you are introduced to a new concept - worsening. In simple terms, you can think of this as the opposite of improving. In this question, rather than initially improving the line of play, you have worsened it by creating footprints in a bunker on the line of play. While there are certain times you may restore conditions when they are worsened (this is covered under Rule 8.1d), if they are worsened by you, in almost all cases you’ll need to take your medicine and use that as a reminder to be more careful around your ball in the future.

Because it was you who worsened the line of play, you must accept those new worsened conditions. Additionally, if your caddie does something in breach of the Rules, the Rules treat that act as if you did it yourself (this is covered by Rule 10.3). So, by smoothing the bunker and improving your line of play, you get the general penalty in breach of Rule 8.1a.


Hole 6

Question: In Four-Ball stroke play, you take an action in relation to your partner’s ball that improves your partner’s conditions affecting the stroke. The action taken does not improve your conditions. What is the ruling?

(a) Your partner gets the general penalty; you get no penalty.
(b) You get the general penalty; your partner gets no penalty.
(c) You and your partner both get the general penalty.


This is the first time a partner form of play is viewed through the principle of playing the course as you find it. Your partner is allowed to do almost anything for you except make a stroke. However, similar to how the Rules treat your caddie’s actions, if your partner breaks a Rule in relation to your ball, it’s like you did it yourself and you get the penalty (this is covered by Rule 23.5b). If given the option, pick your partner carefully!

We see this concept come to life on Hole 6 - you’ve improved the conditions affecting the stroke for your partner so your partner gets the general penalty... hopefully you played the hole well enough to carry the side.


Hole 7

Question: Which one of the following statements is false?

(a) In a penalty area, you may improve the area of your intended swing in fairly taking your stance.
(b) In the general area, you may improve the lie of your ball in pressing down a replaced divot.
(c) Within the teeing area, you may remove a weed growing in the teeing area to prevent it from interfering with your backswing.


Hole 7 is similar to Holes 2 and 3 in that it addresses the dynamic between Rule 8.1a and Rule 8.1b. It also explores how different areas of the course are treated. It’s important to remember that Rule 8.1a applies everywhere on the course and can even cover areas off the course when you improve the conditions affecting the stroke (for example, if you stand out of bounds to play a ball in bounds and improve the area of your swing by breaking a branch off the course).

However, the putting green and teeing area are treated as special areas (you’ll see this throughout the Rules) and Rule 8.1b grants you special permission to do things in those two areas that would result in a penalty if done elsewhere on the course.


Hole 8

Question: You intend to take relief for a ball that lies in ground under repair on a slope. Before taking relief, you break off a branch from a bush that is located a few yards from the relief area and down the slope because you are concerned your ball might roll down the hill after taking relief. Which one of the following is true?

(a) There is no penalty. You have not improved the conditions affecting your stroke.
(b) You can avoid penalty, but only if you decide not to take relief and play your ball as it lies in the ground under repair.
(c) You get the general penalty.


Hole 8 starts to prepare you for the back nine by introducing the basic concept of Rule 8.2. You may not deliberately alter other physical conditions to affect where your ball might roll to or to affect the result of a future stroke. It’s worth repeating that Rule 8.2 protects other physical conditions (meaning anything not already protected by conditions affecting the stroke).

Another important distinction here is that Rule 8.1 focuses on the outcome - that is, did the action improveRule 8.2 focuses on the behavior - that is, was the action deliberate? A penalty under Rule 8.2 does not depend on whether that action could have or actually did help as you might have intended. Interpretation 8.2b/1 is a great resource if you are struggling to understand this concept.

Now, back to the question. Because you deliberately altered the course in case the ball would come to rest in that position, you get the general penalty.


Hole 9

Question: After your ball came to rest in the general area near a bunker, your conditions affecting the stroke are worsened by a dog that ran through the bunker and kicked up some sand. Which one of the following is false?

(a) You may restore the original conditions as nearly as possible.
(b) If sand ended up on the ball when the conditions were worsened, you may mark the spot of the ball and lift, clean and replace the ball on its original spot.
(c) If the worsened conditions cannot be easily restored, you may place the original ball or another ball in the nearest spot that is not nearer the hole and within one club-length of the original spot where the conditions affecting the stroke are most similar.


The last hole of the front nine relates back to Hole 5. On that hole, you worsened your own line of play. But on hole 9, a dog worsened your conditions affecting the strokeRule 8.1d allows the conditions to be restored after they are worsened by an animal. However, when using this Rule to restore the conditions, you are not allowed to switch to another ball.


Making the Turn and the Back Nine (Questions 10-18)

If you only came out to “play 9,” the front nine should provide a good foundation to appreciate the fundamental principle of playing the course as you find it and the basics of Rule 8. If you feel like you are still on solid ground, let’s make the turn.

Hole 10

Question: Before playing your ball from under a tree, you hook one tree branch that interfered with the backswing underneath another branch, improving the area of intended swing. Before the stroke, another player questions your actions. What is the ruling in stroke play?

(a) There is no penalty so long as the branch returns on its own when it is unhooked or it is returned as nearly as possible to its original position and, in doing so, the improvement created by moving the branch in breach of Rule 8.1a is eliminated before you make the stroke.
(b) You get no penalty so long as you eliminate the improvement by returning the branch to its exact original position. If you do not return the branch to its exact original position before making the stroke, you get the general penalty.
(c) You get the general penalty and cannot avoid that penalty.


The first hole on the back nine builds on the concept introduced on Hole 4 - the ability to un-do or fix certain breaches of Rule 8.1a. However, rather than removing a boundary object, here you have improved the area of intended swing by moving a tree branch. The concept you learned to avoid penalty on Hole 4 applies here as well. Before you make the stroke, the branch must return as nearly as possible to the original position so that the improvement is removed.

Now, let’s build on what you already learned with two more important points.

  • The first point is central to the restoration concept in Rule 8.1c. Notably, there is no requirement to return the object to the exact same position. To explain how it works, think back to the definition of improve. This definition is not about merely changing something but changing it enough so that you gain a potential advantage. Built into this concept is the idea that you could be in a situation where, for example, moving a tree branch a short distance does not create a potential advantage - you can’t make a backswing before moving the branch and, after moving the branch a couple of inches, you still can’t make a backswing. So, to improve in this situation and breach Rule 8.1a, you would need to move the branch far enough so that you’ve changed the area of intended swing enough to gain a potential advantage.
  • If this makes sense, let’s apply that understanding to the restoration concept in Rule 8.1c. This Rule requires that you eliminate the improvement. To do so, the branch needs to return to the original position or to a position where you wouldn’t have breached Rule 8.1a in the first place. In this example, the branch needs to return to that couple of inch space where you wouldn’t have been in breach of Rule 8.1a in the first place; that place where you had no backswing.
  • The second point, while also important, is a lot simpler to understand. The branch does not need to return on its own. You can also move the branch back and if it stays in a position that eliminates the improvement, you have restored.


Hole 11

Question: In which one of the following situations are you not allowed to restore the original conditions under Rule 8.1d?

(a) Your stance is worsened when another player makes a stroke that creates a large divot hole.
(b) Your line of play is worsened by a cart driving across it.
(c) Your lie is worsened by another player’s stroke after you lifted your ball under Rule 15.3b (Ball Anywhere on Course Interfering with Play).
(d) Your area of intended swing is worsened by a branch that became partially detached when a spectator walked through the same area while searching for another player’s ball.


Hole 11 not only tests your ability to know what is and is not allowed but also your ability to recognize what Rule applies to each of the possible answers. All available options demonstrate a situation where the player is entitled to the conditions affecting the stroke that were present when the ball came to rest. However, in option C (the correct answer), the lie is worsened when the ball is lifted. The exception for Rule 8.1d states that situation is covered by Rule 14.2d and not Rule 8.1d.


Hole 12

Question: You attempt to lay up short of a penalty area fronting the green. While you are walking toward the penalty area, your caddie is lagging a bit behind and notices two large divot holes in the fairway and quickly repairs both by returning the divots that were left nearby into the divot holes. When your caddie catches up, you have learned the approach shot took an unfortunate bounce off a sprinkler head and ended up in the penalty area, so you decide to take penalty area relief under Rule 17.1d(2) (Back-on-the-Line Relief). You drop a ball near the reference line and it rolls back and to the left about two feet, coming to rest within the relief area established by where the ball hit the ground. You play the next stroke, and in doing so are standing on one of the large divots that your caddie had recently replaced. How many total penalty strokes do you get, if any?

(a) 0
(b) 1
(c) 2
(d) 3 


This hole tests your ability to pick up subtle nuances in both Rule 8.1 and Rule 8.2. You may have gotten this one right, but only the sure-footed will recognize that neither of these two Rules applies!

At the time your caddie repaired the divot holes, those holes were not part of your conditions affecting the stroke, so Rule 8.1a doesn’t apply.

Additionally, because your caddie wasn’t repairing the divot holes to deliberately affect where a ball might roll to or to affect a future strokeRule 8.2 also doesn’t apply. Don’t get caught up in deciding whether the caddie’s actions fit into the care for the course exception to Rule 8.2; this isn’t a question you need to sort out in this scenario because Rule 8.2 doesn’t apply to the actions the caddie took.

The fact that you ended up playing while standing on one of the repaired divot holes is irrelevant. The only penalty you need to add here is the one penalty stroke resulting from that unlucky bounce that required you to take penalty area relief (yes, when reading questions like this, this one is easy to forget!).


Hole 13

Question: Your ball comes to rest in bounds but very close to a large boundary stake. Before playing, you remove the stake from behind your ball, improving the area of intended swing. When you removed the stake, the stake broke into two pieces (one piece is about a foot long and the other is about 3 feet long). Before the stroke, another player questions your actions. What is the ruling in stroke play?

(a) There is no penalty so long as you tape together the two parts of the boundary stake and replace it back to its original position.
(b) There is no penalty so long as you can and do eliminate the improvement before making the stroke. If this can be done by replacing either piece of the broken stake, then either piece may be used to do so.
(c) There is no penalty if you take another nearby full-length stake and place it in the hole so that the improvement is eliminated before making the stroke.
(d) Because the stake broke into two pieces, you cannot avoid getting the general penalty.


Hole 13 continues to explore Rule 8.1c and when you can avoid penalty for improving conditions affecting the stroke. The challenge on this hole is how the answers are framed in relation to the fact that you broke the out of bounds stake when you removed it.

Again, the key here is remembering two important points: 1) you need to eliminate the improvement before playing your stroke, and 2) the improvement is eliminated  within the limitations laid out in Rule 8.1c. Among the available options, the only one that checks these two boxes is the one that eliminates the improvement created when you removed the stake by returning either of the two pieces to the hole.

To illustrate this more clearly, picture a situation where only the bottom part of the stake is in the way of your swing. The fact that the stake is four feet tall has little to do with its impact - it would be just as much in the way if the stake was only one foot tall. So, by putting either part of original stake back before the stroke is made, you’ve eliminated the improvement and can avoid penalty.


Hole 14

Question: Before playing the ball from the general area, you notice that your left foot for the intended stance would be in a deep divot hole. You find the divot from that hole and improve the intended stance by replacing it in the hole. You then decide to play in a different direction and the new stance is unaffected by your previous actions. At that point, another player questions your actions. What is the ruling in stroke play?

(a) You get no penalty because by changing the stance you are considered to have eliminated the improvement.
(b) You could avoid penalty so long as you eliminate the original improvement by removing the divot before making the stroke. If you do not remove the divot before the stroke, you get the general penalty.
(c) You get the general penalty and cannot avoid that penalty.


Hole 14 tests your ability to differentiate between which breaches of Rule 8.1a you may un-do or fix under Rule 8.1c and which you may not. Actions that happen on or along the physical surface of the ground are excluded from the opportunity to avoid penalty. This is a subjective delineation, but one based on the idea that actions that may be restored (Rules 8.1a(1) and 8.1a(2) only) are “simpler” fixes, whereas other breaches of Rule 8.1a would more often than not be complex restorations.

For example, how do you put dew back after it’s been removed or ensure that the same sand or parts of an exploded divot that were removed are put back?

With that understanding, the improvement you created by replacing a divot is a breach of Rule 8.1a(3), so this is an action that may not be un-done or fixed (as noted previously, only Rules 8.1a(1) and 8.1a(2) breaches can be fixed).

Further, the fact that you elected to play in another direction is irrelevant. You breached Rule 8.1a in a manner than may not be fixed under Rule 8.1c, and playing in a different direction doesn’t change that outcome. This last concept is clarified in Interpretation 8.1a/3.


Hole 15

Question: Your ball comes to rest in a position where there are various artificial objects on your line of play. Most objects are movable obstructions but a sponsor sign has been defined as a temporary immovable obstruction by the Committee. Without any instruction, but while you are watching and waiting for the green to clear, another player removes a number of the objects believing that they are in your way, including a directional sign, some roping and staking and the sponsor sign, which you and the other player both believe to be a movable obstruction. You then make your stroke to the green. What is the ruling?

(a) You get the general penalty and the other player gets no penalty.
(b) The other player gets the general penalty and you get no penalty.
(c) You and the other player both get the general penalty.
(d) Neither of you get a penalty.


You’re heading down the stretch, and on this hole, the actions of both you and the other player have to be considered. Let’s start with the other player, who took a deliberate action to improve your line of play by removing the sponsor’s sign (a temporary immovable obstruction). Whether or not the other player realized his action was not allowed under the Rules, he or she will get a penalty under Rule 8.3. The action was taken to deliberately affect your play, so that other player gets the general penalty.

In your case, take a look at the beginning of the Rules - all the way back to Rule 1.3c(1). This Rule reinforces basic foundational principles about how the game is played. The second bullet point in this Rule states that if you see anyone else take an action in relation to your ball that you know would be a penalty if you had done it, you must take reasonable steps to object and stop that action from occurring. There’s two key parts to how this Rule works.

To explain the first key part, we’ll co-opt the famous Bobby Jones quote, “you might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.” You can’t watch someone rob a bank on your behalf and not be guilty yourself.

The second key part relates to whether or not you know what you are watching is a breach. While we all know it’s not okay to rob a bank, we also know the Rules can be a bit more complicated than basic societal rights and wrongs.  Therefore, this principle only applies if you know that the action you are watching happen to your ball would be a breach of the Rules if you had done it yourself.

The facts in the question make it clear that you were unaware the sign was a temporary immovable obstruction and that the Rules don’t allow it to be moved. Because of this, you “luck out,” and though the Rules would not have permitted you to remove the sponsor sign yourself, you won’t get a penalty. However, the other player is penalized for deliberately taking an action to alter physical conditions to affect your stroke.


Hole 16

Question: True or False: Your ball is embedded in its own pitch-mark in the fringe just off the putting green. After lifting the ball and before taking relief, you tap down the pitch-mark to care for the course and then realize the repair of the pitch-mark could help you if the ball came to rest in a position where you might have to play through it. The dropped ball hits and comes to rest in the relief area and you play a low running chip shot directly over the repaired pitch-mark. You get the general penalty under Rule 8.1a for improving your conditions affecting the stroke.

(a) True
(b) False


Hole 16 is similar to Hole 12. When and why you repaired the pitch-mark are both critical factors. First, the pitch-mark was not part of the conditions affecting the stroke when you repaired it so Rule 8.1 doesn’t apply - it was not part of the relief area (see Rule 16.3a for how embedded ball relief works) and you did not yet have a line of play.

Additionally, Rule 8.2 would apply only to actions you took to deliberately affect where your ball might roll or to affect a future stroke, which wasn’t why you fixed it. No penalty and play on.


Hole 17

Question: In Four-Ball stroke play, your ball comes to rest in the fringe between the putting green and a bunker. Your partner’s ball comes to rest in the bunker behind your ball. Your partner plays from the bunker and deposits sand on and around your ball. Which one of the following is correct?

(a) You must play the ball as it lies since the worsening of the lie was a result of your partner’s actions.
(b) Only you may restore the lie by removing the sand and lifting and cleaning the ball if necessary.
(c) Either you or your partner may restore the lie by removing the sand and lifting and cleaning the ball if necessary.


On Hole 17, we revisit partner forms of play. The nuance in this question is differentiating between certain actions that your partner might take that worsen your conditions affecting the stroke; some of which you may restore under Rule 8.1d and others that you may not.

In this question, because the actions of your partner relate to playing his or her ball, you are allowed to restore the conditions that were worsened by your partner playing out of the bunker.

Further, because your partner can do almost anything that you may do, except make a stroke, either you or your partner may restore the conditions.


Hole 18

Question: True or False: Your ball comes to rest in the fairway with a worm cast immediately behind the ball. Before playing the ball, you press down the cast, improving your lie and area of intended swing. You get no penalty.

(a) True
(b) False


We close the round with a frequently asked, but difficult, question.

There are a few basics to point out and a few different Rules to connect.


The ability to remove loose impediments in any way leaves the methods of removal open-ended and makes it okay for you to remove the worm cast (loose impediment) by pressing it down, rather than swiping it away with a towel or the like.

Some may look at Rule 8.1b(2) and ask how pressing the worm cast down is a reasonable act, but this analysis is not necessary here. Rule 8.1b(2) operates just like every other part of Rule 8.1b. For example, if you don’t fairly take your stance and bend a tree branch that improves the conditions affecting your stroke, you would be in breach of Rule 8.1a.

In the same way, imagine a scenario where you’re faced with a loose branch that is entangled in other attached tree branches. If you remove the loose branch in an unreasonable way (such as by aggressively ripping it out to untangle it) and by doing so, you end up improving the conditions affecting your stroke by breaking the attached branches, you would be in breach.

But if you remove the loose branch in a reasonable way, even if you improve the conditions affecting the stroke as it relates to the attached branches, you would not get a penalty.

This is also explained in Interpretation 12.2a/1, which considers the case of a pinecone in sand. In that Interpretation, a player drags a pinecone that was at rest near the ball and, when doing so, also removes a mound of sand behind the ball. Because the movement of that sand improved the conditions affecting the stroke, and that improvement occurred by removing the loose impediment through an action that was not reasonable (the player could have simply lifted the pinecone straight up), that player would get a penalty under Rule 8.1a.

In this question, while the pressing down of the worm cast improved the area of your intended swing, the act didn’t otherwise move anything else that improved the conditions affecting the stroke.


Scoring Area and Final Thoughts

Thanks for joining us on this round and for playing the course as you find it. This concept is woven into the foundation of the game and is likely recognized, at some level, by all golfers. Hopefully, this Short Course on the Rules added to your understanding for this principle and how Rule 8 protects it.