The rule(s) concerning Water Hazards and Lateral Water Hazards have often been charged with being too complicated. A strict prohibition on certain actions has never been really practical, so a series of exceptions had to be made. You can find these in Rule 13-4, Rule 12-1b, and various Decisions.

Players could not:

  • Test the condition of the water hazard,
  • Touch the water or the ground in the water hazard with a hand or club, or
  • Touch or move loose impediments that are in the water hazard.

Note: It may be worth looking back at Day 7 – Penalty Areas to Supersede Water Hazards. (Penalty Areas are the expanded designation for areas that include what were called water hazards in 2018 and before.)

Under the new Rule 17 there will no longer be any special restrictions when a ball is in a Penalty Area. A player will be allowed to touch or move loose impediments and touch the ground with hand or club (such as grounding the club right behind the ball) for any reason, subject only to the prohibition on improving conditions for the stroke (see new Rule 8.1a).

So why the change? This is what the R&A and USGA have to say:

  1. There has been confusion and complications in applying the Rules, such as needing to decide when a player was or was not “testing”, what constitutes touching “as a result of or to prevent falling”, and similar questions about applying the many exceptions.
  2. The current prohibitions have led to penalties that some view as overly harsh, such as:
    • Where the breach was so inconsequential that the player could not have gained any advantage or where even a careful player could not have avoided the penalty, and
    • In a televised competition, where the breach could not be detected by the player or others on the course and was discovered only through later video review.
  3. Treating a penalty area the same as the general area for these purposes will simplify the Rules, reduce confusion and eliminate unnecessary penalties.
  4. Removing these restrictions is consistent with the purpose of a penalty area – which is not necessarily to require the player to face a more difficult challenge in playing the ball, but to address the practical need to give the player appropriate relief options because it will often be difficult or impossible to play a ball from the penalty area (such as when the ball is under water).

But note: A player may not take unplayable ball relief in a Penalty Area.