The Basics of Golf Winter Rules: How to Play Through Inclement Weather

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Luke is an avid weekend-warrior golfer from the East Coast who plays golf more than he cares to admit.

Golf is a great game for all seasons. More than 24 million Americans played golf in 2018. 

Most of them hit the course during the summertime. But many players like to extend their playing season into the fall and even the winter months. You can play golf in the wet and sloppy months. You just have to know about golf winter rules. 

What exactly are golf winter rules, and how do they affect your golf game? What do you need to do when you want to play on an icy or wet course? 

Answer these questions, and you can tee off come rain or shine. Here is your quick guide. 

The Essentials of Golf Winter Rules 

Winter rules make it easier for players to golf during the winter. When the ground is soft, icy, or otherwise unfavorable, winter rules allow golfers to improve their lie. This makes the ball easier to hit while protecting the overall condition of the course.

Golf winter rules allow players to continue using their favorite golf courses in the winter months. If you are new to golf, consider taking online golf lessons to become familiar with the standard rules before adding winter variations. When you’re playing with a group, the players can decide before teeing off which rules to use. 

Golf courses post winter rules by condition, not by the calendar. If the course has snow and ice, players can use the rules regardless of the date. Even in warm weather, most players will prefer winter rules if the course is wet.

Formal golf winter rules are relatively new. Official rulebooks for golf did not define winter rules until the 2010s. The PGA and other organizations now recognize conventions for winter golf, though some rules remain informal. 

Common Winter Rules 

Winter rules help make up for less-than-ideal conditions. Let’s take a look at a few common scenarios where winter rules will often apply. 

  • You pitch your ball up just shy of the fringe. When you approach your next shot, you find your ball sunk halfway into the mushy turf. 

This area is not usually a hazard area on the course, and under normal conditions, you would have an easy shot. 

Under winter rules, you are allowed to extract your ball and clean it. Then, you can place it back on the ground within six inches of its original position but no closer to the hole.

  • Ground under repair. It doesn’t have to be wet or cold for winter rules to be in play. If the course you’re playing has fairways under stress, winter rules may be reasonable. For instance, if drought conditions have led to poor turf or dried-out fairways, there may be little or no grass between your ball and the ground. If winter rules are in play, you are allowed to fluff your ball with the head of your club to give it some loft. Don’t improve your lie – if you landed behind a tree, you can’t move your ball to improve your line of sight. And don’t move your ball closer to the hole.
  • The course ate your ball. Normally, if you can’t find your ball, you need to take a one-stroke penalty and hit again from the location of the last shot. But if you are playing on a saturated course, and you’re not certain of where your ball went, you may get relief. The area must be playable fairway under normal conditions, and you must have a witness who agrees that you deserve relief. If all this is true, you can drop a new ball in the approximate location and play on without a penalty. 

Preferred Lies 

If you head to your local golf course, they may tell you that preferred lies are allowed. Preferred lies are winter rules that have been customized by a particular golf course. The clubhouse will give you specific instructions before you head to the tee box. 

When you prefer a lie, you aren’t being dishonest! You simply improve the lie of your ball. 

You can adjust the position of the ball to have better access to it. Some courses only allow you to improve your lie if you land in the fairway. Other courses may state that you are allowed a preferred lie in the rough as well. If you land in a sand trap or water hazard, you will still need to play the ball as it lies or take a penalty.

With preferred lies, you can move your ball after it lands in mud, snow, or ice. Depending on the rules of your local course, you may also improve your lie if you land on damaged or dead grass.

Regardless of the situation, you cannot move your ball closer to the hole. Use your club to measure one club length from your original lie, no closer to the pin. Hold your ball out at shoulder height within the club length you measured and drop your ball. This is called a free drop.

You can choose to use preferred lies even if your course hasn’t posted them, assuming you aren’t playing in a tournament. Talk with the golfers you’re playing with before the round starts, and make sure everyone agrees on the rules. 

Lift, Clean, and Place

A muddy ball will not roll well. You can clean your ball if it is covered in ice or mud. 

If your ball is in the fairway, use a tee to mark your place. Pick up your ball, clean it, and place it back where it was. If your ball is on the green, use a ball marker. Always mark your place directly behind your ball in line with the pin. 

If your ball is too dirty or damaged to play, you can replace the ball with a new one. 

Improving Course Conditions

All players should do their best to keep course conditions up. Avoid muddy or otherwise fragile turf. Replace divots and level your ball marks with a tee.

On a wet course, you may need to carry your golf bag. Carts and pull carts may be limited to the cart path. Even in the best conditions, carts and pull carts should not be parked on the green or fringe.

Get the Resources You Need for Golf 

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Luke Griffin

Luke is an avid weekend-warrior golfer from the East Coast who plays golf more than he cares to admit.

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