Rules Column: Pat Campbell

How the yellow and red stakes rules came about and where they are now in the game

So often, players find the difference between the red and yellow penalty areas to be of minimal interest until they are informed that they just proceeded incorrectly. So, to help you out, a little history, Pat style (which is a disclaimer to say this how it MAY have evolved).

The first golf courses may not even have had water on them until the day that a thrifty and business minded fellow named MacDuff approached Ian and Shamus about his piece of land. MacDuff had been observing the growing interest in this intriguing game of golf and could see where his property might make a good track.

Ian and Shamus take a look and agree that the gentle hills and contours would make a natural golf course except for one small concern. It had a stream and a duck pond. Golfers were certain to object to the possibility of losing a ball in the water and having to play under stroke and distance. What to do? Then, a great idea,…. what if players were given the option of playing a ball back from the edge of the water area on a line created by the location of the hole and that spot where the ball last crossed the edge, all for one penalty stroke. This would still keep the water area in play and players would have to use some course management skills or deal with the results of their risk and reward decision. Done deal, the land purchase went ahead, and the course was developed.

As time passed, golfers being by nature a rather legalistic and whiny group (I’m a golfer, I can say this!) began to question just why they had to keep the stream in play in front of them if in fact their ball had bounced in from the side. They hated having to find somewhere to cross the stream and the players behind them resented the extra time this all took. They needed another option for this situation. Ian and Shamus were called in again.

The solution, for those water areas that were parallel or lateral to the line of play for a hole, was to permit golfers to use another option: to drop a ball within two club lengths from the place where the ball last crossed the edge of the water area, no closer to the hole, under one penalty stroke. A great time saver and the grumbling subsided. To make the difference obvious courses began to paint the edges of the water areas that crossed the line of play yellow and those that ran parallel or lateral to the line of play red as shown in the photos.

So now, yellow water hazards had two options for penalty relief: play under stroke and distance or drop a ball back on a line formed by the hole location and the spot where the ball last crossed the edge of the “hazard.” Red water hazards had these two options plus the third option of dropping within two club lengths of where the ball last crossed the edge.

Here we are, in 2022, and again we have a revision as of 2019. You will find it in Rule 17. This time it’s the definition of a penalty area that has been changed. First, the name change from water hazard to penalty area allows for the expanded definition. In addition to the familiar water and waterways, courses are now permitted to designate areas where a ball may often be lost or unable to be played as red penalty areas. This could be heavily treed or rocky areas, desert, their choice. This assists with pace of play, but it can also affect the course rating so one course may use this expanded definition while another may decide not to. Bodies of water formerly always painted with a yellow line may also be painted red. Penalties and options have remained the same. On a new course and you’re not sure…., play a second ball.

The USGA has some excellent videos on penalty areas. Check them out.