It's that time of year when one of the most confusing rules in the book come into play. Winter rules, also known as “preferred lies,” is perhaps so confusing because it technically isn't a rule at all, but is often treated as an unwritten rule that often gets abused.
Although “winter rules” were clarified by golf's governing bodies, the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, with the 2004 edition of the “Rules of Golf,” no such provision previously existed in the list of golf's 34 official rules.
Instead, winter rules were considered a local provision that gave individual clubs the discretion to make allowances for weather and course conditions. Under most winter rules, preferred lies are awarded to golfers whose shots comes to rest in the fairway but are impeded by specific, weather-related issue that are covered by each club.
For instance, if a golfer's shot lands in the fairway but stops in a patch of dead grass caused by frost, snow or ice, winter rules allow the player to move his ball to get relief from the conditions anywhere between six inches or a club length, depending on the club’s specifications. This practice is called “lift, clean and replace,” or more commonly “lift, clean and cheat.”
Although Myrtle Beach's mild climate avoids some of these issues, the preferred lies rule is often declared by golfers looking to improve their lie. For many recreational golfers, winter rules are called at their own discretion, ignoring the fact that only the club's rules committee can enact them. They are most often posted in the clubhouse or relayed to players at the starter's shack. Unless the club specifically declares winter rules in effect, no allowances should are provided.
Perhaps it was this widespread misuse and confusion about the “rule” that prompted the USGA and R&A to address the issue in an appendix in 2004. According to the revised Rules of Golf (Appendix I, Part B, Section 3b):
“If a player's ball lies on a closely-mown area through the green [or specify a more restricted area, e.g., at the 6th hole] the player may mark, lift and clean his ball without penalty. Before lifting, he must mark the position of the ball. The player must then place the ball on a spot within [specify area, e.g., six inches, one club-length, etc.] of and not nearer the hole than where it originally lay, that is not in a hazard or on a putting green.
“A player may place his ball only once, and it is in play when it has been placed (Rule 20-4). If the ball fails to come to rest on the spot on which it was placed, Rule 20-3d applies. If the ball when placed comes to rest on the spot on which it is placed and it subsequently moves, there is no penalty and the ball must be played as it lies, unless the provisions of any other Rule apply.
“If the player fails to mark the position of the ball before lifting it or moves the ball in any other manner, such as rolling it with a club, he incurs a penalty of one stroke.”
The appendix goes on to prescribe the punishment for violating the rule – a two-shot penalty in stroke play and loss of the hole in match play. It may sound severe, especially for those casual golfers who see no harm in improving their lie. But for serious golfers who are never sure how to police the practice, local rules are the letter of the law.