Rules Of Golf: Unplayable Ball In Bunker

Unplayable ball in bunker? Jeremy Ellwood looks at what you can and can't do if you decide it would be impossible or unwise to play it

Unplayable ball in bunker
(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

Unplayable ball in bunker? Jeremy Ellwood looks at what you can and can't do if you decide it would be impossible or unwise to attempt to play it

Rules of Golf: Unplayable Ball in Bunker

While many golfers are eager to have a go at the ball regardless of where or how it is lying, there may come a time when you face a bunker lie that is pretty much unplayable.

Unplayable ball in bunker

If you decide it would be impossible or unwise to play this, what are your options?

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

Maybe it’s so close to a steep face that you just can’t get a stance; maybe it’s right under an overhanging lip and there’s no way of getting the ball up and out; or maybe it’s right at the back edge with virtually no chance of getting the club to the back of the ball however steeply you pick it up on the backswing.

Why you SHOULD mark your golf ball

As elsewhere on the course, you as the player are the sole judge as to whether you wish to declare your ball unplayable if you believe that’s the most prudent option to avoid racking up a potentially card-destroying number

Rule 19.3 covers unplayable balls in bunkers and, in essence, your three options for dropping under penalty of one shot are the same as they would be elsewhere on the course. Your first option is to go back to where you hit the previous shot and play again under penalty of stroke and distance. Perhaps crucially sometimes, this is your only option to drop outside the bunker for just a one-shot penalty (although you might still be in another bunker if the original shot was played from one!).

Unplayable ball in bunker two club-lengths

You could drop within two club-lengths no nearer the hole under penalty of one stroke, but it must be in the bunker

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

You could also decide to drop within two club-lengths of where the ball is lying in the bunker no nearer the hole, but if you go for this option you must drop within the bunker, again under penalty of one stroke.

Penalty Areas: How to proceed under Rule 17

The third option is to keep the original position of the ball in line between you and the flag, go back as far as you want within the bunker and drop in a one club-length relief area anywhere back on that line under penalty of one stroke. With both the two club-lengths and back-on-a-line options, it’s worth factoring in the likelihood of your ball potentially plugging in soft sand even when dropped from only knee height.

Unplayable ball in bunker drop back on line

You may also drop back on line as far as you like within the bunker for a one-stroke penalty

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

Golf Rules: Putting Green Essentials

Finally, there is a further option, which although coming at a cost of two penalty shots, crucially allows you to drop back on a line between the flag and the original position of the ball as far as you like outside the bunker.

Unplayable ball in bunker drop back on line outside bunker

You can also now drop back on line outside the bunker, but this will cost you two penalty strokes

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

Only you can decide if the extra penalty shot is worth it and, while it’s unlikely to be commonly used, it could just be your best option if bunkers are a real problem for you and the other three options don’t appeal for various reasons – perhaps you would have to play over water again from a long way out under stroke and distance, or the sand is particularly soft and any ball dropped in it from any height could plug badly.


Jeremy Ellwood
Contributing Editor

Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly across the whole spectrum from courses and Rules to equipment and instruction. He also edits The Golf Club Secretary Newsletter, a highly regarded trade publication for golf club secretaries and managers, and has authored or co-authored three books and written for a number of national papers including The Telegraph and The Independent. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 91 of the Next 100, making him well-qualified when it comes to assessing and comparing our premier golf courses. He has now played well over 950 golf courses worldwide in 35 countries, right across the spectrum from the humblest of nine-holers in the Scottish Highlands to the very grandest of international golf resorts, but put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content.

Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf

Jeremy is currently playing...

Driver: Ping G425 LST 10.5˚ (draw setting), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 55 S shaft

3 wood: Ping G425 Max 15˚ (set to flat +1), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 65 S shaft

Hybrid: Ping G425 17˚, Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro Orange 80 S shaft

Irons 3-PW: Ping i525, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Wedges: Ping Glide 4.0 50˚ and 54˚, 12˚ bounce, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Putter: Ping Fetch 2021 model, 33in shaft (set flat 2)

Ball: Varies but mostly now TaylorMade Tour Response