You have played a pretty good shot to the green, and the ball has come to rest on the fringe or collar. A fellow-competitor then blasts out of a greenside bunker depositing sand all over and around your ball. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? The USGA agrees with you, and has adopted many Decisions they call Equity Decisions to take care of situations such as this. There is a principle in the Rules of Golf that says that a player is entitled to the lie his shot gave him. That principle comes into play here, and in the instance described above, the player is allowed to remove all the sand around his ball, even the sand on the fringe, and he can lift and clean his ball even though he is not on the green.
The same is true, in some circumstances, if another player’s pitch-mark through the green interferes with your lie or line of play. Normally, you may not improve your line of play by eliminating “irregularities of surface” or “pressing down cut turf”. Therefore, if the pitch-mark is there when your ball comes to rest near it, you will not get relief. But, if the pitch-mark is created after your ball came to rest, in equity, you will be allowed to repair it.
Your ball lies in a bunker. You take a practice swing outside the bunker, and by mistake, tear out a large divot which lands behind your ball in the bunker. That divot is a loose impediment, and you are not allowed to remove it without penalty. However, if another player does the same thing to you, you are allowed to remove the divot under the principle that “the player is entitled to the lie his stroke gave him.” The same would be true if your ball lies in a water hazard.
Suppose a branch falls from a tree and comes to rest on your ball lying in a bunker. You might assume that under this generous principle you are entitled to remove it. Not so. The principle applies only in cases in which the lie of the ball has been altered as a result of an act by another player, caddie, spectator or other animate outside agency. In this case, the lie was altered by natural causes and you are not entitled to relief.
The principle may also be applied when a player’s area of intended stance is affected by another player’s stroke. For example, if another player removes a huge divot when playing his ball, and that divot hole now affects your stance, in equity, you may restore that area as nearly as possible without penalty. The equity ruling even goes so far as to say that if the area of the stance can’t be restored, you may place your ball, without penalty, on the nearest spot within one club-length of the original lie that provides the most similar lie and stance to the original. This new spot may not be nearer the hole or in a bunker.
This equity principle also applies if your lie or line of play gets improved instead of damaged. For example, your ball lies in a bunker, and before you can reach the bunker, a greenkeeping staff member rakes the bunker improving your lie or line of play. As long as you have not sanctioned the raking, you are absolved of penalty.
The general rule of thumb is that if another person creates the situation, you are absolved of blame and can get relief. However, if you create the situation yourself, or it happens through natural causes, you are just out of luck!
Jeanne Myers, Assistant Director-Rules & Competitions
Golf Association of Michigan