Should Golfers Get Free Relief From Fairway Divots?

It's a question that prompts polar-opposite responses from different golfers, but should we get free relief from fairway divots?

Should you get free relief from this? (Photo: Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It's a question that prompts polar-opposite responses from different golfers, but should we get free relief from fairway divots?

Should Golfers Get Free Relief From Divots?

This question often raises its head as many golfers feel it very unfair that you should hit a seemingly perfect drive, only to end up in a divot from a previous player’s shot.

If anyone had a right to feel aggrieved, it would be Marc Leishman. The Australian made it into a play-off for the 2015 Open at St Andrews only for his drive on the first play-off hole to end up in a fairway divot.

When the media pressed him on it, he acknowledged his disappointment. But then he pretty much brushed it off as part and parcel of the game:

“Yeah, drove it straight into a divot, which was pretty disappointing especially to that pin. You couldn't see the bottom part of the ball.

"I didn't really have much of a chance there and then three-putted from about 60 feet, which was disappointing. You can't do anything about it. You've just got to try and deal with it and make a par and move on. Disappointed, but that's the way golf goes."

In the video below, Neil Tappin and Jezz Ellwood discuss some of the reasons why golfers don't get relief from divots and as they explain, from a rules perspective, it is complicated!

The three lies shown in this video illustrate the difficulty here perfectly. And yet, opinions seem to be split on whether relief should be given.

Wildly different opinions

People have polar-opposite views on the subject of fairway divots. Some rage at the unfairness of it all. Others are more philosophical and see it as an occupational hazard in a game played on a vast natural arena.

When the question was posed on the Golf Monthly website forum, about 75% of the comments were along the lines of ‘no relief and just get on with it’.

We recently ran the topic as a debate in the magazine too, with me taking the ‘no’ side and my colleague, Fergus Bisset, pleading the case for free relief from divots…

RELATED: Golf Rules Explained: Provisional Ball

Should You Get Free Relief From Fairway Divots?

No says Jeremy Ellwood

Let me start by saying that I, like every golfer, feel understandably aggrieved when I arrive at a rare fairway-splitting drive to find part of the ball underground. It makes you want to weep!

So, how can I possibly argue against free relief from such a blatantly unfair break?

Well, there are plenty of other instances where the game seems inherently unfair. For example, the perfect shot that would have spun and stopped dead but instead hits the flagstick and rebounds into the water, as Tiger experienced in the 2013 Masters.

Perhaps more importantly though, how would you define a divot in the Rules so that everyone was applying the same yardstick? A deep gouge out of the fairway is obviously a divot. But what about a lighter scraping where the surface has been damaged but not very much?

At many clubs, you effectively get free relief from divots for nearly half the year anyway via winter rules. And finally, how often does it really happen? Personally, I can't recall one such instance last year. In fact, I'm struggling to remember my last really bad break on this front.

Is it fair to have to play from this or worse after a perfect drive? (Photo: Kenny Smith)

Yes says Fergus Bisset

Golf is a game where you have to take the rough with the smooth to succeed. Inevitably you face bad breaks almost every time you play. A cruel bounce, a bobble on the line of a putt, an unexpected gust of wind. And yes, on the flipside, the occasional bit of good fortune creeps in there too.

But having to play from divot holes in the fairway spins the dancing wheel of golfing chance too hard and fast. Striking a perfect shot and finding a near unplayable lie is totally unfair, not simply a bit of bad luck.

If you pipe one down the middle of a narrow fairway, you should reap the benefits. You shouldn’t walk up to find you’re in the centre-cut but two inches below the surface in a divot hole. If you do, you should be entitled to relief.

Okay, it’s often possible to play a shot from a divot hole, but the challenge is far greater than from nicely mown grass. And the steep angle of attack necessary to find the back of the ball brings that most dreaded possibility into the equation – a shank!

The Rules of golf are generally fair and reasonable, but no relief from a divot in the fairway is one I believe should change. Shots played into the correct place should never be punished to that extent.

You will have your own opinion, of course, but we can say from our many conversations with The R&A that there is little appetite to change the status quo on this.

This from a feature a few years ago with the then director of rules and equipment standards, David Rickman, and then chief executive, Peter Dawson…

Why is there no free relief from fairway divots?

David Rickman: It’s a fundamental principle that the ball is played as it lies. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but these are limited in number and restricted to circumstances where relief is considered appropriate and necessary: immovable obstructions, casual water [now temporary water], ground under repair – that sort of thing.

Course conditioning has improved considerably over the years and I think that has exacerbated matters for some who feel they have an entitlement to a perfect lie. But I think it’s a fundamental principle that you have to accept good and bad lies as part of the game.

Peter Dawson: And what is a divot? There would be a big debate – we’d just go on and on.

Indeed! You can argue that we all know what a divot is in general terms, but for the Rules of Golf, that’s not enough. We would need a definition that couldn’t be read different ways and wasn’t open to misinterpretation. Is such a definition possible? We remain unconvinced…

Jeremy Ellwood
Contributing Editor

Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly. He is an expert on the Rules of Golf having qualified through an R&A course to become a golf referee. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 91 of the Next 100, making him well-qualified when it comes to assessing and comparing our premier golf courses. He has now played 1,000 golf courses worldwide in 35 countries, from the humblest of nine-holers in the Scottish Highlands to the very grandest of international golf resorts. He reached the 1,000 mark on his 60th birthday in October 2023 on Vale do Lobo's Ocean course. Put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content.

Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf

Jeremy is currently playing...

Driver: Ping G425 LST 10.5˚ (draw setting), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 55 S shaft

3 wood: Ping G425 Max 15˚ (set to flat +1), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 65 S shaft

Hybrid: Ping G425 17˚, Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro Orange 80 S shaft

Irons 3-PW: Ping i525, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Wedges: Ping Glide 4.0 50˚ and 54˚, 12˚ bounce, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Putter: Ping Fetch 2021 model, 33in shaft (set flat 2)

Ball: Varies but mostly now TaylorMade Tour Response