Rule 16 and Strategic Play Explained: Mastering Free Relief in Golf

Colin McCarthy

free relief in golf

Golf can be a game of precision and strategy, but sometimes, unexpected obstacles come into play. These obstacles, known as abnormal course conditions (ACC), include things like animal holes, puddles, and immovable obstructions such as cart paths.

They aren’t meant to be part of the challenge, which is why the Rules of Golf allow players to take free relief under Rule 16.

Understanding when and how to take free relief can significantly impact your game. Whether your ball lands in an ACC or an ACC interferes with your stance or swing, knowing the rules can help you navigate these situations smoothly.

This guide will delve into the specifics of Rule 16, ensuring you’re well-equipped to handle any abnormal course conditions you encounter on the green.

Free Relief in Golf

Free relief in golf refers to a situation where a player is allowed to move their ball without penalty under the rules of golf.

There are several scenarios where a player might be entitled to free relief:

What Is Free Relief?

Free relief in golf allows players to move their ball without incurring a penalty when certain abnormal conditions affect play.

These conditions include interference from animal holes, ground under repair, immovable obstructions, and temporary water.

Players adopt this rule to maintain the integrity of their game while navigating obstacles that aren’t part of the intended course design.

To take free relief, golfers must identify the nearest point of complete relief and drop the ball within one club-length of that point, no closer to the hole. Understanding and properly applying this rule ensures fair play and upholds the spirit of the game.

Rules Governing Free Relief

Several rules guide the proper application of free relief:

Animal Holes

Players may take free relief when a ball lies within or touches an area affected by an animal hole. According to Rule 16.1a, the nearest point of complete relief must be identified, and the ball dropped within one club-length of that point, no closer to the hole.

Ground Under Repair (GUR)

Free relief is granted if a player’s ball ends up in an area marked by the committee as GUR. Under Rule 16.1b, the player must identify the nearest point of complete relief and drop the ball within the defined relief area.

Immovable Obstructions

Relief can be taken when an immovable obstruction like a cart path or sprinkler head interferes with the player’s stance, swing, or ball location. Rule 16.1a stipulates the steps for taking relief, similar to those for animal holes and GUR.

Temporary Water

When temporary water affects a player’s lie, stance, or swing, free relief applies under Rule 16.1b. After determining the nearest point of complete relief, the ball must be dropped within one club-length.

Common Scenarios for Free Relief

Abnormal course conditions (ACC) include animal holes, ground under repair (GUR), immovable obstructions, and temporary water.

Abnormal Course Conditions

Abnormal course conditions (ACC) include animal holes, ground under repair (GUR), immovable obstructions, and temporary water.

If a player’s ball is in or touches an ACC, or if the ACC interferes with the player’s stance or swing, they may take free relief.

The player must determine the nearest point of complete relief, then drop the ball within one club length of that point, no closer to the hole.

Common examples include animal holes dug by creatures other than worms or insects, areas defined by the committee as ground under repair, permanently fixed objects, and temporary water accumulations like puddles.

Dangerous Animal Condition

When a player encounters a dangerous animal condition, such as the presence of bees or snakes, they are allowed to take free relief to ensure safety.

Similar to other ABCC scenarios, the player must identify the nearest point of relief that offers protection from the threat and does not advance the ball closer to the hole.

The ball is then dropped within one club length of that reference point. This rule prioritizes player safety above all else.

Embedded Ball Rules

Players may take free relief if their ball is embedded in its own pitch mark in the general area. The general area excludes teeing areas, penalty areas, bunkers, and putting greens.

To take relief, the player must determine the spot right behind where the ball is embedded, then drop the ball in a relief area within one club length of that spot, not nearer to the hole.

This rule helps maintain fair play when a ball becomes unfairly lodged in the turf. It’s essential for players to follow these guidelines to ensure consistent play across different courses and conditions. Properly taking free relief not only upholds the rules but also speeds up the game for everyone.

Steps to Take Free Relief

Taking free relief in golf involves several steps to ensure that you follow the rules correctly:

Identifying When Relief Is Allowed

Players must identify conditions where free relief is allowed under Rule 16. The rule covers interference from abnormal course conditions (ACC), which include animal holes, ground under repair, immovable obstructions, and temporary water.

For example, if a player’s ball lies in or touches any of these conditions, they can seek relief. Interference also applies if ACCs affect the area of intended stance or swing.

Procedures for Taking Relief

To take free relief, players must follow specific procedures. They start by finding the nearest point of complete relief, which is the reference point where the ball would no longer be affected by the ACC.

Once identified, they can drop a ball within one club-length from this point, ensuring it lies within the relief area.

Animal Holes

For example, if the ball is in an animal hole, the player determines the nearest point where the hole no longer interferes with stance or swing and drops the ball within one club-length.

Ground Under Repair

If the ball is in or touching ground under repair, the player marks the nearest point of relief and drops within one club-length.

Immovable Obstructions

Players face immovable obstructions like a sprinkler head. They find the nearest point where the obstruction doesn’t interfere and drop the ball accordingly.

Temporary Water

In cases where temporary water affects the ball, players determine the nearest dry point and drop within the relief area.

Strategic Considerations

Absolutely, here are the steps to take free relief in golf:

When to Take Relief vs. Play the Ball

Players must identify when taking relief outweighs playing the ball as it lies. Evaluating the severity of obstructions or abnormal conditions determines the optimal choice and impacts overall game strategy.

For example, a player facing an immovable obstruction like a bench should compare the potential complications of taking a stroke with the obstruction against taking relief under Rule 16.

If a player has a clear shot but lies in temporary water, the decision hinges on assessing the potential impact on the ball’s trajectory and distance.

Ensuring compliance with Rule 16 also dictates considering the nearest point of complete relief, even if it places the ball in a less favorable position.

Various conditions like standing water, animal holes, and ground under repair require careful evaluation to choose the best course of action.

How Relief Decisions Can Affect Your Game

Relief decisions in golf can significantly impact your game in various ways:

Course Management

Properly taking relief can help you manage your way around the golf course more effectively. By understanding when and how to take relief, you can avoid obstacles, such as immovable obstructions or abnormal course conditions, that might otherwise hinder your progress.

Shot Strategy

Relief decisions can influence your shot strategy. For example, if you take relief from a difficult lie or an obstruction, you may have a clearer path to the green or be able to execute a different type of shot with more confidence.

Scoring Opportunities

Making the right relief decisions can create scoring opportunities. By positioning your ball in a more favorable location, you may have a better chance of hitting the green in regulation or setting up a birdie or par opportunity.

Mental Focus

Knowing that you have options for relief can give you peace of mind and help you stay focused on your game. Conversely, if you’re unsure about the rules or your options for relief, it can lead to indecision and distraction on the course.

Penalties and Errors

Failing to take proper relief or making relief decisions based on misunderstanding the rules can result in penalties or errors. This can add strokes to your scorecard and potentially affect your overall performance in the round.


Making smart relief decisions can boost your confidence on the course. When you know you can navigate around obstacles effectively, you approach your shots with greater assurance and belief in your abilities.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many times can you drop a ball in golf?

The player must drop the ball correctly, and there is no limit to the number of times this must be done. A ball dropped improperly doesn’t count as one of the drops required before placing it under Rule 14.3c(2).

Do you get free relief from a tree?

Your options are playing the ball as it lies or taking an unplayable ball relief. Relief is typically not granted for tree roots unless they are on the fairway or immediately next to it.

How do you take a free drop in golf?

To take relief, identify the nearest point where interference from the condition ceases. Drop within one club-length of this point, without moving closer to the hole.

Do you get relief from man-made objects in golf?

You can either play the ball as it lies or take free relief. Find the nearest point of complete relief from the artificial object and drop your ball within one club-length of this point, not nearer the hole (Rule 16.1).

What is free relief in golf?

Free relief is taken when your ball is on the putting green and interfered by an abnormal course condition like an animal hole, ground under repair, an immovable obstruction, or temporary water. Place the original ball or another ball as illustrated in Rule 16.1d.


Understanding free relief in golf is essential for both compliance with the rules and strategic gameplay. By assessing abnormal course conditions and making informed decisions on whether to take relief or play the ball as it lies, players can significantly impact their performance.

Properly identifying the nearest point of relief and dropping the ball within one club-length are key to maintaining a competitive edge. Strategic use of free relief helps ensure fair play and can be a game-changer on the golf course.

Knowing when and how to take advantage of free relief can prevent unnecessary strokes and improve overall score. Keep updated on the latest rules and practice these scenarios to enhance your golfing strategy.

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Colin McCarthy

Golf is about mastering your misses and learning from them. I seek answers on the how and why of the golf swing, gaining experience even when answers elude me. With over 11,000 hours of teaching and a hunger for learning, I welcome any questions. My goal is to introduce golf to as many as possible, simplifying the game for all to enjoy. Passionate, eager, and ambitious, I'm here to teach, listen, and learn. LinkedIn

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