Understanding Water Hazards Golf Rules: 2019 Penalty Areas Update Explained

Colin McCarthy

water hazards golf rules

Navigating the intricacies of golf’s rules can be a challenge, especially when it comes to water hazards. Since the 2019 update to the Rules of Golf, the term “hazard” has been replaced with “penalty area” to better capture the diverse landscapes golfers encounter.

Understanding these changes is crucial for players looking to improve their game and avoid unnecessary penalties.

Water hazards, now referred to as penalty areas, are marked with either red or yellow stakes or lines. These markings indicate the type of relief options available to the player.

While many golfers are familiar with the basics, there are specific nuances that can significantly impact how one approaches these tricky spots on the course. Let’s dive into the essentials of water hazards and how to navigate them effectively.

Understanding Water Hazards in Golf

Understanding water hazards in golf is crucial for players aiming to navigate the course successfully. Water hazards typically refer to any body of water on the course, such as ponds, lakes, streams, or even oceans, that come into play during a round of golf.

Here are some key aspects to understand:

Definitions and Basic Rules

Water hazards, now referred to as penalty areas, are marked by red or yellow stakes or lines. The 2019 Rule update expanded these areas to include not only conventional water bodies like ponds and streams but also desolate areas like deserts and jungles.

The general rule for handling a ball in a penalty area is to take a one-stroke penalty and use one of several relief options. Players can play the ball as it lies if possible or proceed under Rule 17, which provides detailed relief methods.

Types of Water Hazards

Water hazards in golf can pose significant challenges to players of all skill levels. Here are the main types:

Yellow Penalty Areas

Yellow penalty areas, previously known as regular water hazards, offer two primary relief options. Firstly, players can replay the shot from the original position.

Secondly, they can drop a ball any distance behind the hazard, maintaining a straight line between the hole and the point where the ball last crossed the hazard margin.

Additionally, it’s important to note that unlike red penalty areas, yellow penalty areas do not allow lateral relief by dropping a ball within two club lengths of where the ball last crossed the edge of the hazard.

Red Penalty Areas

Red penalty areas, or lateral water hazards, provide four relief options. Besides the two options available for yellow areas, players also have the option to drop within two club lengths of the point where their ball last crossed the hazard, provided it isn’t closer to the hole.

Additionally, they can drop the ball within two club lengths from a point that is equidistant on the opposite side of the hazard.

Rules for Yellow-Marked Water Hazards

Understanding the rules for yellow-marked water hazards is essential for golfers looking to navigate these obstacles effectively.

Here are the key rules:

Playing the Ball as It Lies

When a player’s ball lands in a yellow-marked water hazard, they can choose to play the ball as it lies. This choice, often the least chosen due to challenging conditions, doesn’t incur any additional penalty.

The player must avoid grounding the club and cannot move loose impediments in this situation. This decision demands precise skill and accuracy, significantly affecting the round’s outcome.

Alternatively, players can take relief by dropping a ball behind the hazard, keeping the point where it last crossed the margin between the hole and the drop point. This results in a one-stroke penalty.

Options for Taking Relief

Players encountering a yellow-marked water hazard have three main options for taking relief, each involving a one-stroke penalty:

Stroke and Distance Relief

This option allows the player to return to the spot where the original stroke was made and play the shot again. It’s often chosen when the ball is in an unplayable position.

Back-On-The-Line Relief

For this relief, the player identifies the point where the ball last crossed the edge of the penalty area. From this point, they draw an imaginary line extending straight back from the flagstick and the point where the ball crossed into the hazard. They can drop their ball anywhere along this line.

Lateral Drop Alternatives

Contrary to red-marked (lateral) hazards, yellow hazards don’t offer lateral relief. Therefore, the player relies heavily on stroke-and-distance or back-on-the-line options.

Rules for Red-Marked Penalty Areas

Understanding the rules for red-marked penalty areas is vital for golfers to navigate these challenging areas effectively.

Here’s a breakdown of the key rules:

Playing the Ball as It Lies

When a ball lands in a red-marked penalty area, a player can choose to play the ball as it lies. This option incurs no penalty strokes.

Playing the ball as it lies usually requires exceptional skill, given the typical conditions of penalty areas. For instance, a ball in a thick underbrush or a mud-soaked part of the course can be difficult to play effectively.

Alternatively, a player can take a one-stroke penalty and drop a ball outside the penalty area. The drop must occur within two club lengths from where the ball last crossed the boundary, not nearer to the hole.

Lateral Relief Options

For red-marked penalty areas, players have two additional lateral relief options, each with a one-stroke penalty.

Drop Within Two Club Lengths

Take the point where the ball last crossed into the penalty area. Drop the ball within two club lengths of this point, ensuring the drop is not closer to the hole. This option is commonly used and provides a straightforward relief strategy.

Opposite Side Relief

Drop the ball within two club lengths from a point equidistant on the opposite side of the penalty area where the ball last crossed into it. While rarely used, this method can sometimes offer a more advantageous lie.

No Relief for Opposite Side

Starting from 2019, players can no longer automatically drop on the opposite margin in red penalty areas. Though local committees might permit it through a Local Rule if other relief options prove impractical.

This change aims to simplify the rules, as players often found opposite-side drops confusing and time-consuming. Earlier versions allowed it sometimes to provide a better line and lie, but the removal facilitates faster play and clearer rules adherence.

Changes Under the New Golf Rules

The new golf rules, which came into effect in 2019, introduced several changes aimed at simplifying the game and making it more accessible to players of all levels.

Here are some key changes:

Expanded Use of Red-Marked Areas

The 2019 Rules revision introduced the concept of “penalty areas” to replace traditional “water hazards”. This change included expanding the use of red-marked areas, previously known as lateral water hazards.

This expansion means that committees can now mark areas without water, such as deserts or jungles, as penalty areas. This aims to enhance safety and pace of play by offering more consistent relief options across the course.

Red-marked areas come with additional relief options. Players can drop the ball within two club lengths of the last crossing point into the hazard, no closer to the hole.

Alternatively, they can move back on a line from the flagstick and the crossing point, with the latitude to drop the ball at any point along that line. These options come with a one-stroke penalty.

Adjustments to Relief Procedures

Under the new Rules, changes to relief procedures simplify and clarify the options available to players dealing with penalty areas. The new Rule 17 maintains the three relief options familiar from water hazards but broader in application.

Players can choose to play their ball as it lies within the penalty area, return to the point of the previous shot, or drop on the line going back from the flagstick through the entry point.

In yellow-marked areas, these three options remain the only choices. For red-marked areas, players retain the unique advantage of lateral relief within two club lengths or on the opposite side of the hazard.

By standardizing procedures and using consistent terminology, these changes aim to make the game more beginner-friendly and reduce potential for disputes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a penalty area in golf?

A penalty area is any part of the golf course marked by either yellow or red stakes or lines, replacing what were traditionally called water hazards.

What are the new rules for yellow penalty areas?

In yellow penalty areas, a golfer can play the ball as it lies without penalty.

Do the new rules affect the pace of play?

Yes, the new rules aim to speed up the game. By offering simpler and more flexible relief options, players can quickly make decisions and resume play, reducing unnecessary delays on the course.

Can a player choose not to take relief from a penalty area?

Yes, a player can choose to play the ball as it lies within a penalty area without taking relief.


Navigating penalty areas in golf has become more straightforward with the 2019 Rule update. Players now have clearer options for dealing with yellow and red-marked areas, enhancing both safety and the pace of play.

By understanding these new rules, golfers can make more informed decisions, ultimately improving their performance on the course.

Embracing these changes will lead to a more enjoyable and efficient golfing experience for all. For yellow penalty areas, golfers can take a penalty drop and replay their shot, or drop a ball behind the hazard.

For red penalty areas, lateral relief adds more flexibility. Knowing these distinctions can drastically reduce unnecessary strokes.

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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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