Playing By The Rules During The COVID-19 Pandemicby Jamie Wallace

The following content was first published in the monthly digital edition of Golf Journal. To be among the first to receive access to Golf Journal, the USGA’s Members-only quarterly print and monthly digital publication – along with the many other benefits of becoming a USGA Member – visit the USGA Membership page.


For anyone who has been able to get out to a golf course in recent weeks, your experience was likely a little different than any other round you have played. The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all aspects of life, and the game of golf and the Rules that govern it are no different.

In many areas of the country, golf was completely shut down for a period of time this year. When it came back, and for those areas where it never shut down, the necessity to keep social distance, eliminate common touch points and follow government health guidelines brought about some significant shifts in golf course operations as well as golfer behavior. The updated Rules of Golf that were introduced in 2019 certainly did not directly address a pandemic; however, they were written to provide flexibility and still allow the game to be played today according to the Rules. 

While there is no single right way for a golf course to address play in the current environment, let’s take a look at some of the most common adjustments that you might have seen and likely will continue to see. It is important to note that a round played using any of the options below is “played under the Rules of Golf.”

Bunkers and Bunker Rakes

Some course operators have chosen to remove all bunker rakes from the course. This will likely result in less-than-ideal bunker conditions, which a golf course may address by:

  • Requiring you to play your ball as it lies (but asking you to smooth the bunker after playing).
  • Deciding to treat every bunker as ground under repair, which will allow you to take free relief outside the bunker.
  • Deciding to treat only disturbed areas in the bunker as ground under repair (such as footprints), meaning that you can take free relief within the bunker.
  • As a last resort, using preferred lies to allow you to place your ball elsewhere within the bunker (such as within one club-length).


The flagstick serves an important role in the game as an indicator of the location of the hole. Golf course managers may decide to:

  • Set up the course without flagsticks (but should provide guidance on where the hole is located).
  • Prohibit all golfers from touching or removing the flagstick.
  • Provide players with liquid sanitizer or cleansing wipes and allow the flagstick to be handled as usual.
  • Use flagsticks with an attached movable tray that allows the ball to be holed and then removed from the hole with a club (these are normally not allowed under the Equipment Rules, but a temporary measure is in place to allow them).

Modifications to the Hole

You might see:

  • Hole liners inverted or raised an inch or two above the green so that your ball can’t be holed.
  • Foam noodles, plastic piping or other objects placed in the hole so that your ball will not fall to the bottom of the hole.
  • With some of these options, a ball can’t actually be holed according to the Rules. However, the most likely score guidelines from the Rules of Handicapping will still allow scores to be posted.

Scorecards and Scoring

If you are playing in a competition, you might see alternatives to physical scorecards used such as verbally certifying scores (rather than with a signature) or using electronic scoring methods (this could be through specialized software, or simply through text messages or email).

None of the above COVID-19 guidance changes or modifies the existing Rules of Golf – these are all options available under the Rules as written. Whether recreationally or in a competition, we hope you’re able to (safely) get out and play some golf this summer! For more in-depth information on everything discussed above please visit or reach out to the Rules Team directly at or 908-326-1850.