Why golfers should be allowed to ground their clubs in the sand

Could the Ocean Course’s lack of formal bunkers be a model for all golf courses?
Phil Mickelson's hole-out from the sand on the 5th hole in the final round of the 2021 PGA Championship was made no less spectacular by the fact that he was able to ground his club.

Other than “Phil Mickelson,” it’s safe to say that the most popular two words at the 2021 PGA Championship were “sandy areas.”

As they did for the 2012 edition, the PGA of America declared that despite being built literally on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort would have no formal bunkers as defined by the Rules of Golf. Players were instructed to treat all sand the same: as part of the golf course’s “general area.”

This meant that in both the large wastes and defined pots otherwise maintained like traditional bunkers and totally surrounded by grass, players could sole a club behind the ball lightly before taking the club back to play a shot. They were also allowed to touch sand on their practice swings in the bunk—er, sandy areas.

The championship passed without uncomfortable Rules infractions or complaint from TV viewers over whether a player had broken the Rules by inadvertently moving a few stray grains on his backswing. Coincidentally, Abraham Ancer, who was penalized for that precise infraction at the Masters in April, turned in the round of the week at Kiawah on Sunday, a 7-under 65 to finish tied for eighth.

Did this local rule make such shots less compelling? Hardly. Just look at the reaction to Mickelson’s spectacular hole-out from the sand on the par-3 5th hole on Sunday. Safe to say the thousands on the ground at Kiawah and the millions watching at home thought highly of the shot.

Which brings me to a question that might make golf purists and rule hawks quiver: Should all golf courses make all sand part of the “general area” like Kiawah did?

In the interest of simplifying the game, I am tempted to say “Yes” for a few reasons.

Pros, take note: you can touch the sand with your club in South Carolina. But in Wisconsin, it's forbidden.

3 reasons to allow golfers to ground their clubs in the sand

First, prohibiting a player from grounding his or her club in a greenside or fairway bunker does not make those shots more difficult in any significant way. If anything, the ability to gain a little extra information from taking a practice swing away from the ball might tempt golfers into playing more aggressively, leading to further problems.

Second, lifting the veil between "bunker" and "general area" would make the separation between what is and isn’t a penalty area more logical, especially in light of the USGA and R&A’s 2019 revisions to the Rules of Golf regarding bunkers.

As it currently stands, a player has more freedom in a staked or painted penalty area than in a bunker, since grounding one’s club and taking practice swings there is now allowed. It feels vaguely counter-intuitive that one would have more liberty to settle into a shot at the margins of a pond or wetland than in a greenside bunker.

Finally, turning bunkers into part of a course’s general area would eliminate potential contention over unintentional Rules infractions. In my own casual rounds, often with golfers of a certain age, I see plenty of accidental groundings of a wedge in bunkers. If I called these out, I’d soon have no one to play with.

Abraham Ancer clearly gained no advantage over the field in committing his 2021 Masters penalty. Neither did Anna Nordqvist, whose own accidental brush with sand cost her a chance to win the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open.

Is there any doubt that Dustin Johnson’s own similar infraction distracted from a thrilling conclusion to the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits? Interestingly, the PGA of America doubled down in the 2015 edition, once again declaring all of the course’s nearly 1,000 individually-wrapped sandy pits – even the ones where the crowd had been walking – to be bunkers.

As for the 2021 Ryder Cup, it should be business as usual. A PGA of America source indicated, “I would expect we will treat them all as bunkers as we have done at all our Championships played there.”

Dustin Johnson's inadvertent Rules infraction from an obscure bunker on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship cast a shadow on an otherwise exciting event.

Different courses, drastically different rules on sand

But what about everyday visitors? “During normal play, in general, we allow players to ground their club in bunkers where there is no rake,” says Mike O’Reilly, director of golf at Destination Kohler, of which Whistling Straits is a part. “Most of the fairway bunkers do not have rakes [but] most of the greenside bunkers do have rakes. The majority of our guests play this way.”

But, O’Reilly added, some guests elect to play any sand as a bunker, rake or not, in deference to the rules of past major championships at the course.

The Ocean Course and Whistling Straits are two Pete Dye masterpieces where sand plays a key architectural and strategic role. The two diametrically opposed stances on how that sand is to be handled show the current freedom of facilities to determine procedures under the Rules of Golf.

Pros, take note: you can touch the sand with your club in South Carolina. But in Wisconsin, it's forbidden.

As during the PGA, Ocean Course encourages everyday golfers to ground their clubs in its sandy areas. So do two great Mike Strantz courses beloved of traveling golfers, Tobacco Road in North Carolina and True Blue in South Carolina.

In Florida, Streamsong Resort takes a hybrid approach, recommending “maintained” sand be treated as a bunker while the sandy in-between areas throughout the property be treated the same as rough.

PSA: A word on 'waste bunkers'

The term “waste bunker” is a nonsense term in golf. I recommend eliminating it from your vocabulary.

It is an inherent contradiction because “waste” implies an area through the green while “bunker” implies, well, a bunker. If you are referring to an expanse of sand where you may ground your club, it is a “waste area.” If you may not ground your club, it is a bunker, no matter how big. Keeping these terms straight will limit confusion.

Some courses will delineate through-the-green waste areas from proper bunkers with a blue stake. Others advise golfers that a certain shade of sand is to be played as bunker while another shade is to be treated normally.

Sandridge Golf Club, my home course, asks players to treat all sand as bunkers, even the large dunes that border several holes on both its courses. Of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the absence of rakes, we were allowed to place the ball in our bunkers, contradicting the play-it-as-you-find-it spirit of the rules.

Is this inconsistency and potential confusion necessary? Is the freedom of self-determination worth a bit of confusion among golfers, especially those taking up the game recently? It seems to me that bunker play is enough of a challenge to golfers that the Rules of Golf need not place an extra layer of anxiety over the top of it. Play the ball as it lies, ground the club if you need to and move on. If you don’t like being in the sand, don’t hit it there.

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Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
Commented on

I agree, if you touch a little sand in the bunker, no big deal and no penalty. Another rule I would like to see changed is the ball resting in a divot on the fairway. Should a player have a bad lie with a good fairway shot? I say we should be allowed to remove the ball from the divot, no closer to the hole. After all, it is called a fairway!

Commented on

Allow the clubs to touch. This might allow golfers to take shots that would add more excitement to the game

Commented on

Who really cares. Just hit the ball. No advantage either way

Commented on

During the Covid lockdown last year we had no rakes in bunkers, we were allowed to lift and place the ball because it was unreasonable to play from someones foot print or divot. This worked quite well.
Now, I find rakes dropped near the edge of a bunker and very little raking has been done. Lift and place in a sand area is a reasonable rule, which will save me the trouble of raking where others have not as well as taking rakes away from just inside the edge of a bunker.

Commented on

I’m in favor of the rule change. Every course has a different bunker care, depth, and type.

Commented on

OK! My 2c worth... I am ok with bunker shots when the bunkers are good. A lot of courses can stare at their toes now, including my own. Bunker play requires;1. an adequate amount of sand in all of the bunker and 2. good drainage. And 3. the same sand in all of the bunkers. I play mostly 'normal' courses, not 'name brand designed' ones and very few can meet this standard. I accidentally touched the sand in a fairway bunker recently whilst aligning my direction. This was witnessed by 2 players who said nothing. The minor mark on the surface was close to a metre away from the ball. It was an infraction, but one that had no bearing at all on the shot. I did not report a penalty. Does this make me a cheat? I dont think so and neither did the competitors who saw it, even though I hit a great fairway wood shot.
Unofficial 'Rules Officials' need to grow up and get a life! We all know cheats; the ones whose imaginary 2 club lengths must be based on some giants broomstick putter, the ones whose 30cm preferred lies are in imperial units, the ones whose ball is magically no longer in the fried egg bunker lie... I am sure you can add to the list... Cheating is based on an intent to gain an advantage rather than a practical sensible approach to playing reasonable golf ... sometimes in unreasonable conditions... Golf is both bigger than, and more important than this petty stuff!

Commented on

I play with a few different groups of various skill levels, and since the removal of rakes last year during the pandemic, we have relaxed the rules of play from bunkers, When the ball is in a footprint or tire track (yes tire tracks) you can remove it and place it as close as possible OR you can "rake" the area with your foot. You are still playing from the bunker and most likely from a less than adequate bunker than the pros are playing from. I really don't see much difference from any bunker play prior to 2020. Some of us hit great shots and some of us have trouble getting out of a bunker. The other difference I've noticed is that many courses have not maintained the bunkers , having very little sand on top of a clay base, making it very difficult play a normal bunker shot, as the club bounces more often, causing very thin contact and mishits.

Commented on

The only problem is golfers might start taking practice swings in the sand and waste time. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me.

Commented on

If it isnot a true bunker, then grounding the club should be allowed. Only to get the feel for the swing. But cannot make a divot so the club can get under the ball.

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Why golfers should be allowed to ground their clubs in the sand