Abnormal Conditions and Free Relief

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In the Official Rules of Golf, jointly written and maintained by the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Rule 16 is titled “Relief from Abnormal Course Conditions (Including Immovable Obstructions), Dangerous Animal Condition, Embedded Ball.”

The purpose of the rule, as excerpted from the rule book, is this:

Rule 16 covers when and how the player may take free relief by playing a ball from a different place, such as when there is interference by an abnormal course condition or a dangerous animal condition.

These conditions are not treated as part of the challenge of playing the course, and free relief is generally allowed except in a penalty area.

The player normally takes relief by dropping a ball in a relief area based on the nearest point of complete relief.

This Rule also covers free relief when a player’s ball is embedded in its own pitch mark in the general area.

It is the obligation of golfers to know the rules, and the USGA and R&A have tons of resources on their respective websites to help us learn and understand.


To that end, these are links directly to the text of Rule 16 that is found on the governing bodies’ websites:

Summarizing Golf Rule 16

In our Quick Intro to the Rules of Golf, we summarize Rule 16 as follows:

  • Relief is allowed from animal holes, ground under repair, immovable obstructions or temporary water.
  • Interference exists if your ball touches any of these areas, or if they interfere with your intended stance or area of intended swing.
  • You may drop your ball away from an immovable obstruction if it interferes with your swing or stance. Find the nearest point not nearer the hole where the ball can be played without interference with your swing or stance. Drop the ball within one club-length of that point. Note: It is good practice not to pick up the ball until you have established the nearest point of relief.

There are four sections within Rule 16: Rule 16-1, titled “Abnormal Course Conditions (Including Immovable Obstructions)”; Rule 16-2, titled “Dangerous Animal Condition”; Rule 16-3 covers “Embedded Ball” and Rule 16-4 is titled “Lifting Ball to See If It Lies in Condition Where Relief Allowed.”

The term “abnormal course conditions” covers animal holes, ground under repair, immovable obstructions or temporary water. Golfers do not get free relief from these conditions when their ball is out of bounds or inside a penalty area. Otherwise, free relief is available when:

  • Your ball touches or is in or on an abnormal course condition,
  • An abnormal course condition physically interferes with your area of intended stance or area of intended swing, or
  • Only when your ball is on the putting green, an abnormal course condition on or off the putting green intervenes on your line of play.

Rule 16-1(b) explains the drop procedure for taking free relief, including a diagram illustrating how to find the nearest point of relief. Clauses (c) and (d) of 16-1 cover relief when your ball is in a bunker or on the putting green and you encounter abnormal conditions.

Rule 16-2 states the common-sense principle that if your golf ball winds up near a dangerous animal, you don’t have to play it (or go near that dangerous animal!).


Rule 16-3 provides a diagram explaining what an embedded ball is and how to proceed if your ball is embedded.

Be sure to read the full Rule 16, interpretations of Rule 16, and definitions of important terms either on USGA.org or RandA.org.

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