Rules of Golf – Loose Impediments

Loose Impediments and Movable Obstructions (Rules 23-1 and 24-1)

It seems that many golfers are confused as to whether objects on the course are loose impediments or movable obstructions. This is an important distinction to make, as there are a number of relevant Rules where players could incur penalties if they get it wrong.

In fact, in most cases, the distinction should be easy enough. Loose Impediments are natural objects and movable obstructions are anything artificial that can be moved without unreasonable effort. Here is a sample list of some of the items that may be encountered on the golf course during a round;

Loose Impediments
Movable Obstruction (artificial)
bunker rakes
other players’ golf clubs
branches and twigs
stakes (except out of bounds)
pine cones
signage and ropes
dung and droppings
bottles and cans
score cards
worms and their casts
pens and pencils
spiders and their webs
paper, tissues
half-eaten fruit
plastic bags
fruit skins
packets and boxes
ant hills
dead birds and animals
match sticks or cigarettes
aeration plugs
abandoned balls
clods of earth
loose stones from a wall
wood manufactured into planks
crushed shells
wood chips
doors or windows

Be aware, that under the Rules sand and loose soil are loose impediments on the putting green, but not elsewhere; snow and natural ice, other than frost, are either casual water or loose impediments, at the option of the player; and dew and frost are not loose impediments. 
Some loose impediments may be transformed into obstructions through processes of construction or manufacturing. For example, a log (loose impediment) that has been split and has legs attached has been changed by construction into a bench (obstruction), or a piece of wood (loose impediment) becomes an obstruction when manufactured into a charcoal briquette. Also, there may be loose impediments that when placed together make up an obstruction. An example of this would be a manufactured path (immovable obstruction) made of wood chips. If a player’s ball lies on such a path and he chooses not to take relief then he may move any of the wood chips before making his stroke, providing that he does not move his ball in doing so, 

Except when both the loose impediment and the ball lie in, or touch, the same bunker or water hazard, any loose impediment may be moved. But if the player causes their ball to move while removing the loose impediment, they are penalised one stroke and the ball must be replaced, unless the ball is on the putting green when there is no penalty. 

Movable obstructions can be removed anywhere on the course, including when the ball lies in a hazard, and there is no penalty if the ball moves during the removal, but again it must be replaced where it was before it was moved. If the ball lies in or on the obstruction, the ball may be lifted and the obstruction removed. The ball must then be dropped, or on the putting green placed, as near as possible to the spot directly under the place where the ball lay in or on the obstruction, not nearer the hole. 
As already mentioned, if a player’s ball lies in a bunker they are not permitted to remove any loose impediment from that bunker. (The above photo illustrates this well – my ball was lying on a leaf in the bunker and had to be played as it lay.) However, very often there will be a Local Rule that says, “Stones in bunkers are movable obstructions”, because it is considered that the stones could represent a danger to players if they are hit during a stroke. This is a good illustration of why it is so important to read the Local Rules before commencing a round on an unfamiliar course. Whilst on the subject of bunkers, if a player cannot find their ball in a bunker because it is covered by sand, leaves or other loose impediments, they are permitted to probe or rake with a club or otherwise, as many loose impediments, or as much sand, as will enable them to see a part of their ball. When making a stroke out of a bunker, or water hazard, the player may not touch any loose impediment in that hazard before making their stroke, which commences with the downswing. So, for example, if a player brushes leaves in a bunker during their practice stroke or backswing they incur a penalty of two strokes in stroke play, or loss of hole in match play.