GOLF RULES The difference between red and yellow hazard stakes

Water hazards are defined by red or yellow stakes. What is the difference?

Firstly, water hazards aren’t officially known as water hazards anymore. The R&A and the USGA got together to simplify the Rules of Golf and they’re now known as penalty areas.

Yellow stakes define a water hazard penalty area, and red stakes define a lateral water hazard another type of penalty area, and the options for correctly proceeding are similar but there is one difference that is very important to know.

In either area, you’re more than welcome to play the ball as it lies.

But for both red and yellow stakes, you may also, under the penalty of one stroke (Rule 17), take relief. And they’re both similar except for the red penalty areas you have one extra option.

It’s all best explained in the Rules FAQ section via the USGA:

When you take relief from a penalty area, you get one penalty stroke. For yellow penalty areas, you have two relief options. For red penalty areas, you have three relief options (the same two relief options as you do for yellow, plus one additional option.)

For a yellow penalty area, you may take relief by dropping into a relief area using (1) the spot at which your last stroke was made under stroke and distance (see Rule 17.1d(1)) or (2) the back-on-the-line relief procedure (see Rule 17.1d(2)).

For a red penalty area, you have the two options above for a yellow penalty area, plus an additional option to take lateral relief. Lateral relief allows you to drop a ball into a relief area measured from where your ball last crossed the edge of the red penalty area. From that reference point, you are allowed to drop outside the penalty area and anywhere within two club lengths of that spot, no nearer to the hole (see Rule 17.1d(3)).

Maybe this is obvious but I’ve lost track of the number of times golfers, experienced golfers, have misunderstood this rule.

6 thoughts on “GOLF RULES The difference between red and yellow hazard stakes

  • Michael,

    I have two short videos explaining the relief options for water hazards (yellow stakes and/or lines) and lateral water hazards (red stakes and/or lines) on my blog page;
    which also explains why Padraig Harrington walked back to the other side of the pond after pitching his ball into the water on the 16th hole at the Bridgestone International last August.

    Many golfers have told me that these videos helped them understand how to take correct relief from water hazards for the first time.

    It is good to see someone else blogging on the Rules of Golf.

    Barry Rhodes

    (P.S. I will understand if you choose not to publish this comment. Feel free to edit it in any way you think appropriate).

  • It’s a rule that will always confuse. I play off 6 and I was playing with a guy off 3 and it took us five minutes to agree what the ruling was on a lateral hazard. And that’s why I prefer links golf – no water hazards, just sea

  • Mike,

    Top marks. Lateral water hazards in particular can be confusing. One point; a lateral water hazard does not necessarily run alongside the fairway, it is any area that the committee have designated as a lateral hazard and marked with Red stakes. There can even be occasion when by choosing the opposite side of the hazard you can drop your ball on the green with a clear line of putt.

  • Could you explain the situation where you drop on the opposite side of the hazard, equidistant from where you initially went into the hazard and be on the green with a clear line of putt?


  • Re Anonymous. Decision 26-1/14 illustrates such a situation. It is possible where a tongue of a lateral hazard intrudes into the line of play that an advantage may be gained by dropping on the opposite margin of the hazard which may even allow a clear line of putt to the flag.

    Mickleson in the Singapore Open lost his ball in a lateral hazard. Fortunate for him he cleared the hazard before hitting a tree and rebounding into the water. However, it was interesting to see that he explored the possibilities of dropping on the opposite margin of the hazard before making his decision.

  • Thanks Cliff. It would be rgeat to try and get some footage of this. We’ll be revisiting all of this in the near future.


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