Bunker Rules in Golf: Everything You Need to Know

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Golf, a game rich in tradition and sportsmanship, places great emphasis on understanding and adhering to its rules. 

Among these, bunker rules play a significant role in maintaining the integrity and challenge of the game. 

Bunkers, often perceived as daunting obstacles, can significantly influence a player’s strategy and outcome on the course. 

Thus, a comprehensive understanding of bunker rules is crucial for golfers of all levels to ensure fair play and enjoy the game to its fullest.

Understanding Golf Bunkers

In golf, bunkers are specially prepared areas filled with sand. They are strategically placed to add challenge and complexity to the course.

The primary purpose of bunkers is to test a player’s ability to play a ball from the sand, adding an extra layer of skill and strategy to the game.

Whilst bunkers are considered a hazard, they are different to penalty areas on a golf course.Unlike water hazards, bunkers do not incur a penalty for merely landing in them. 

They are treated differently in terms of relief options and how you can interact with them before taking their shot. We’ll run through more of this below.

When is a Ball Considered to be in a Bunker?

callaway supersoft golf balls in a green side bunker

According to The R&A’s Rules of Golf, a ball is considered to be in a bunker when:

  • It lies in or touches the sand within the bunker’s boundary.
  • It lies on ground where sand from the bunker has been blown or spread by an outside agency (e.g., wind, maintenance).
  • Part of the ball lies inside the edge of the bunker, even if the other part is outside the bunker’s boundary.

This specific definition is crucial as it determines the applicable rules a player must follow when their ball is in a bunker.

Bunker Rules You Need to Know 

Below we’ll run through some of the main differences between bunkers and other areas of the golf course. 

It’s crucial to know these four rules when playing from the bunker.

1. No Touching the Sand with Hands

One of the fundamental rules in golf regarding bunker play is the prohibition of touching the sand with hands before making a shot. 

This rule is critical for several reasons:

  • Maintaining Fairness: Touching the sand can give a player undue advantage by allowing them to assess the condition or depth of the sand, which is not in the spirit of the game.
  • Consequences of Violation: If a player touches the sand in the bunker with their hand before the stroke, it results in a penalty. The standard penalty in stroke play is two strokes, while in match play, it’s the loss of the hole!

It’s important to note that this rule applies strictly to situations when a stroke is yet to be made. 

Players are allowed to touch the sand incidentally or for other reasons, such as to prevent a fall, but not for testing the condition of the bunker.

2. Restrictions on Club Contact with Sand

Just as touching the sand with your hand is forbidden, a player is also not allowed to deliberately touch the sand with their club before making a stroke in a bunker. 

This includes any practice swings that might touch the sand or grounding the club close to the ball.

The rule is in place to maintain the challenge of playing out of a bunker. It prevents players from gaining an advantage by altering the condition of the sand before the shot.

There are however a few exceptions to this rule. For instance, it is permissible to touch the sand with a club when:

  • Preventing a fall or to maintain balance.
  • Removing an obstruction or loose impediment, as per the specific rules governing these scenarios.
  • Making a stroke at another ball, which is not in the bunker.

3. Handling Loose Impediments and Obstructions

In bunker, the handling of loose impediments and movable obstructions follows specific guidelines:

  • Loose Impediments: These are natural objects such as stones, leaves, branches, or insects. In bunkers, players are allowed to remove loose impediments without penalty, provided the ball doesn’t move during removal. If the ball moves, the player incurs a penalty.
  • Movable Obstructions: These include artificial objects like bottles, cans, or rakes. In a bunker, players can remove movable obstructions without penalty. However, if the ball moves as a result, it must be replaced, and no penalty is incurred.

Understanding what constitutes loose impediments and movable obstructions is crucial in a bunker, as handling them incorrectly can lead to a penalty.

4. Can You Take a Penalty Drop from a Bunker?

Ball plugged in a fariway bunker

One of the key rules is the option to take a penalty drop from a bunker. 

A player may choose to take an unplayable lie penalty, which involves adding one penalty stroke to their score. If taking back-on-the-line relief or lateral relief, the ball must be dropped back in the bunker.

After taking the penalty, the player has three options:

  • Stroke-and-Distance Relief: Replay the shot from the original position before entering the bunker. (1 shot penalty)
  • Back-on-the-Line Relief: Drop a ball backwards, keeping the point where the ball lay between the hole and where the ball is dropped. This must be dropped back in the bunker (1 shot penalty). If dropped outside the bunker it’s a 2 shot penalty.
  • Lateral Relief in the Bunker: Drop within two club-lengths of where the ball lay, but not nearer the hole, and still within the bunker. (1 shot penalty)

These options provide flexibility to players when they find their ball in a difficult lie within a bunker. Although each option comes with its own strategic considerations and consequences. 

You can find more info in Rule 19 of the rules of golf.

Raking and Maintaining Bunker Etiquette

Golfer raking a bunker

After playing a bunker shot, raking the area is not just a rule but a crucial aspect of golf etiquette. 

This practice ensures that the bunker is in good condition for players who follow. Key points include:

  • Raking: Smooth over all disturbances made during the shot, including footprints, divots, and club marks.
  • Etiquette: Leaving the bunker in a condition you’d wish to find it shows respect for other players and the course. Place the rake outside the bunker in the direction of play.

Raking is a simple yet vital act that maintains the integrity and fairness of the course.

FAQs about Bunker Rules

Below we’ve answers some of the most frequently asked questions we receive on bunker rules in golf.

Do you get relief from steps in a bunker?

In general, no. Steps or similar integral parts of the course do not warrant free relief. However, local rules may apply.

Can I take a practice swing in a bunker?

Yes, practice swings  are allowed in the bunker. However, practice swings that touch the sand in the bunker are not allowed under the Rules of Golf.

Can I declare my ball unplayable in a bunker?

Yes, a player can declare their ball unplayable in a bunker. They have options for relief with a one-stroke penalty, but the ball must remain within the bunker under two of these options.