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Golf Rules FAQ: What are Winter Rules (Preferred Lies)?

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(Editor's Note: Rules official Robert Taire contributed to this report.)

Winter rules, also known as "preferred lies," is one of the most misunderstood concepts in golf. Winter rules refers to a practice that most recreational players take part in at some point, and that golf courses may encourage, but which few really understand.

Also, the attitude of the USGA and R&A, golf's governing bodies, toward winter rules or preferred lies changed with the publication of the 2004 edition of the Rules of Golf.

We'll attempt here to clear up some of the confusion and misconceptions about winter rules. But first let's explain what most golfers mean when they use the terms "winter rules" or "preferred lies."

In locations where winter weather can be harsh, with negative effects on golf courses, some courses will post a sign stating "winter rules in effect today," or "preferred lies today." This means, in the simplest explanation, that golfers may improve their lies in certain areas of the course (in other words, that they can move the golf ball to improve its lie). Those areas are usually limited to the fairway. For example, if your drive is in the fairway but the ball comes to rest on a patch of bare earth where the grass has died, winter rules may allow you to move the ball onto grass.

Unfortunately, golfers interpret "winter rules" or "preferred lies" to mean many different things, mostly because many golf courses and clubs do not explain exactly what the terms mean. All too often, the only notice that the local rule is in effect is a sign that says "Winter Rules In Effect Today" posted at the starter's shack or in the clubhouse. Without details, some golfers are apt to do anything they please to take advantage of the situation - including improving their lies in bunkers, improving their lies in water hazards, and even moving the ball from fringe onto the putting green surface!

Here's the most important thing we can tell you about winter rules, and it's something that most golfers don't know: Winter rules are not codified under any of the regular thirty-four Rules of Golf; instead, they are a local rule that has to be enacted before being in effect, just like the "one ball" condition.

Nor are winter rules something that a player can declare in effect. It is something only a course, club or Committee in charge of the competition is authorized to declare. If one of those bodies has not issued a winter rules or preferred lies ruling, you may not use winter rules no matter how bad the conditions.

When winter rules are in effect, such notice should be specific. A simple and effective way of publishing such notice is a verbal or written statement, "Winter rules are in effect today according to Appendix I, ROG. Fairway only, one time - lift, clean and place within six inches." (In the absence of a specific definition, the local rule defined in Appendix I would fill the void. This comes from the presumption that the Rules of Golf applies to the competition. The specified placement distance would be by customary practice, usually six inches.)

The following is the local rule contained in the 2004 Rules of Golf, Appendix I, Part B, Section 3b:

"If a player's ball lies on a closely-mown area through the green [or specify a more restricted area, e.g., at the 6th hole] the player may mark, lift and clean his ball without penalty. Before lifting, he must mark the position of the ball. The player must then place the ball on a spot within [specify area, e.g., six inches, one club-length, etc.] of and not nearer the hole than where it originally lay, that is not in a hazard or on a putting green.

"A player may place his ball only once, and it is in play when it has been placed (Rule 20-4). If the ball fails to come to rest on the spot on which it was placed, Rule 20-3d applies. If the ball when placed comes to rest on the spot on which it is placed and it subsequently moves, there is no penalty and the ball must be played as it lies, unless the provisions of any other Rule apply.

"If the player fails to mark the position of the ball before lifting it or moves the ball in any other manner, such as rolling it with a club, he incurs a penalty of one stroke.

"*PENALTY FOR BREACH OF LOCAL RULE:

"Match play — Loss of hole; Stroke play — Two strokes

"*If a player incurs the general penalty for a breach of this Local Rule, no additional penalty under the Local Rule is applied."

There are two principle changes in the 2004 edition of the Rules of Golf to the sample local rule:

Next Page: 2004 Changes to Sample Local Rule

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