Cleaning Up the Mystery of Trees, Bushes and Practice Swings

Lately, we’ve had a couple of incidents where players have been made to take a penalty stroke for hitting a tree limb or bush during a practice swing. There seems to be a general uncertainty about when that penalty applies, so I thought I’d do some digging and provide some clarity.

On occasion we find our ball has landed near or under a tree affecting the area of our intended swing, meaning we’re going to hit a branch or leaves. And that’s okay whether it’s your practice swing or your actual shot. And guess what? It’s okay if you happen to knock off a couple of leaves or small twigs as long as you have not improved your area of intended swing. Now, if you happen to break off a substantial part of the branch or knock down enough pine needles to cause that pesky limb to bounce up and out of the way, well then, you’re going to have to take that penalty, but only if this occurs during your practice swing. Any breakage or movement of leaves, needles, or limbs during your swing does not incur a penalty as long as you hit the ball. And no, you don’t incur a penalty in addition to the stroke you take if you happen to miss the ball.

All of this is detailed in Decision 13-2/0.5 (which is now incorporated into but not detailed in Rule 8 of the 2019 Rules of Golf):

IMPROVING LIE, AREA OF INTENDED STANCE OR SWING, OR LINE OF PLAY 13-2/0.5

Meaning of “Improve” in Rule 13-2
Q.Rule 13-2 prohibits a player from improving certain areas. What does “improve” mean?

A.In the context of Rule 13-2, “improve” means to change for the better so that the player creates a potential advantage with respect to the position or lie of his ball, the area of his intended stance or swing, his line of play or a reasonable extension of that line beyond the hole, or the area in which he is to drop or place a ball. Therefore, merely changing an area protected by Rule 13-2 will not be a breach of Rule 13-2 unless it creates such a potential advantage for the player in his play.

Examples of changes that are unlikely to create such a potential advantage are if a player:

1. If a player repairs a small pitch-mark on his line of play five yards in front of his ball prior to making a 150-yard approach shot from through the green;
2. If a player accidentally knocks down several leaves from a tree in his area of intended swing with a practice swing, but there are still so many leaves or branches remaining that the area of intended swing has not been materially affected; or
3. If a player whose ball lies in thick rough 180 yards from the green, walks forward and pulls strands of grass on his line of play and tosses them in the air to determine the direction of the wind.

Conversely, examples of changes that are likely to create such a potential advantage and therefore incur the general penalty are:

1. If a player repairs a pitch-mark through the green five yards in front of his ball and on his line of play prior to making a stroke from off the putting green that might be affected by the pitch-mark (e.g., a putt or a low-running shot);
2. If a player accidentally knocks down a single leaf from a tree in his area of intended swing with a practice swing, but, as this was one of very few leaves that might either interfere with his swing or fall and thereby distract him, the area of intended swing has been materially affected; or
3. If a player pulls strands of grass from rough a few inches behind his ball to test the wind, but thereby reduces a potential distraction for the player, or resistance to his club, in the area of his intended swing.

On a final note, keep in mind that the penalty for substantially improving your lie or intended area of swing is a two stroke penalty during stroke play, and the loss of the hole during match play. YIKES!   -JB

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