By Stephanie Mumford Brown
Explanation of golf rules usually starts with a problem and applies a solution, or two, or ten—it can make your head spin. So let’s turn that around.
When you find yourself in a bad situation on a golf hole, often you can fix it by taking a drop. Which is to say, you move your ball to a better position, using a unique technique.
Simple as it seems, however, many players do it incorrectly. They drop in the wrong way or the wrong place, at the wrong time.
You’ll gain much more comfort with competition, and the golf rules that apply to it, just by learning how to take a drop properly. So here’s a summary of how to use golf’s not-quite-universal solution—with this disclaimer: An article this brief and painless is, of course, not definitive. At the end, you’ll find links to more authoritative sources.
How to Drop
After marking your ball position and figuring out your relief zone (more on that to come), you 1) stand up, 2) hold your ball at arm’s length at shoulder height over your relief zone, and 3) let it go. Many golfers get No. 2 wrong—they casually drop from somewhere between hips and chest.
What if the ball rolls to the wrong place—more than two club lengths from where it landed, back into the situation you’re trying to get out of, or that big taboo, closer to the hole? You drop it again.
What if, on your second try, the ball still rolls away? You lean over and place the ball on the ground where it first landed from your drop. Three strikes and you’re in, in golf.
What if you don’t like the lie where your ball landed? Too bad; you have to play it. Some golfers think that the price of a penalty stroke at least lets them shop for a decent lie. Nope, there are no bargains here.
When to Drop
You may take a drop in many, but not all, lousy situations. Let’s categorize them by cause.
Not your fault. When your balls lands on a spot that’s bad because some other human made it that way, you may take a drop. These “immovable obstructions” include things like cart paths, sprinkler heads, distance markers, ground under repair, French drains (a fancy term for rocks in a ditch), and if you happen to be playing in a major tournament, corporate hospitality tents. The same applies for “casual water” (a rules term for post-downpour ponding, nothing “casual” about it in my opinion). Price: free.
You also may extract your "imbedded" ball that's stuck in the spongy fairway and drop it. Nasty divots caused by other humans, however, are your tough luck.
Some bad spots are caused by animals. Golf rules are kindly about woodchuck holes (“burrowing animals”) but have no mercy for goose poop. Deadly stuff like alligators and wasps may be covered by a course’s local rules.
Your bad. Your hit your ball into a water hazard or an unplayable situation. The only good news here is, you get to decide whether a ball is unplayable, as long as you’re willing to pay for it. Price: one stroke.
Too bad for you. If your ball gets lost or goes out of bounds, no drop for you. You must go back and do over the shot (only better). Price: Harsh; one stroke plus distance.
Where to Drop
The fundamentals are:
- No closer to the hole. Period.
- Within your relief zone. The rules are kind: Relief applies both to your ball and to your stance. The rules are also tough: You must take full relief—you can’t move your ball off the cart path or out of the hazard, then stand on the path or in the hazard to hit it. It’s all or nothing.
Where’s your relief zone? This gets way more technical, and in some cases requires defining nearest point of relief. So let’s talk in terms of how you frame the area.
Golf club length. For “not your fault” situations, you first figure out your nearest point of relief—that’s the place where you can stand and swing and not be affected by the crap you want to avoid. Stick a tee at the bottom of your tryout swing, then measure one club length from that spot (use your driver!) and stick in another tee. That line is the radius of an imaginary half-circle zone that’s no closer to the hole. Hold your ball above it and let ‘er drop.
For certain your-fault problems—unplayable lies and lateral water hazards—you may use the same procedure. The one-stroke price you pay for your mistake buys you two club lengths to establish your relief zone. Lucky you.
Imaginary sort-of-infinite line. Now we get positively visionary. This kind of relief zone applies to all water hazards and is an alternative for unplayable balls.
Picture a line running from the hole to your ball (or the place your ball entered the swamp, R.I.P.). Extend that imaginary line backward away from the hole. You may drop your ball anywhere along it: one yard outside the hazard line, 25 yards to a level lie in the fairway, even 150 yards to the fairway one hole over to get back beyond a patch of woods.
This is the stuff of pro-on-TV thrills. It also can eat up a lot of time, so please don’t go nuts here. Remember, you can always go back and replay the shot—sometimes stroke-and-distance is the smarter price. Smartest of all may be to play a provisional ball if there’s any chance your shot is in peril or lost. (Here’s a link to my painless guide to provisionals.)
This is just a Cliff’s Notes summary of drop relief. For the Classics Illustrated version, consider investing a few bucks in the USGA’s Golf Rules Illustrated. For the definitive rules, visit the USGA web site, which offers a searchable database of not only the 204 pages of Rules of Golf but also the 581 pages of Decisions on the Rules of Golf. I keep a copy at bedside in case of insomnia.