Our guide to everything you need to know about golf’s winter rules and preferred lies.

From water-logged fairways to temporary greens, there’s a lot not to love about golf at this time of year. Especially for fair-weather golfers like me.

But understand the winter rules and you’ll quickly find everything that bit easier. Get ready to say goodbye to mud-clogged golf balls (well, almost) …

What are winter rules in golf?

Winter rules are in place to help golfers as it gets colder and wetter on the course. They typically run from 1 October to 30 April, though this may be extended by clubs under certain rules.

In short, winter rules allow a player to lift, clean and replace their ball anywhere that is “cut to fairway height or less”. That’s fairways, greens, green aprons and fringes, or paths cut out of the rough.

For winter rules to be in place, a golf club must publish a temporary Local Rule. You can’t just decide that winter rules apply because it’s a bit wet.

Winter rules: Preferred lies

You’ll often hear winter rules referred to as “preferred lies”. That simply means that whenever your ball lands in a closely mown area, you can lift, clean and replace it. (As a reminder, that’s typically fairways, greens, green aprons and fringes, or paths cut out of the rough).

The idea is that you can play your next shot from somewhere close to the lie you might have the rest of the year.

You generally have to replace your ball within six inches from where it came to rest. Though this may be different at some courses.

Though officially you don't have to, it’s a good idea to mark the position of the ball before you lift it.

Winter rules: Plugged or embedded ball

One rule that will definitely come in handy throughout the winter months is the embedded ball rule.

Since the rules changed in 2019, you can take a free drop if your ball is plugged anywhere within the general area. That means fairway and rough (wahoo!). You’re not entitled to free relief in bunkers or penalty areas.

Under Rule 16.3b, you can take a free drop within one club length, no nearer the hole, from the point directly behind where the ball is embedded.

A ball is only embedded when part of the ball is below the level of the ground.

Winter rules: Standing water

It’s quite common to find waterlogged fairways during the wetter parts of the winter months.

So you’ll be pleased to know that if your ball is under water ­– defined as visible surface water before or after you take your stance – and it’s not in a penalty area, you can take free relief.

Under Rule 16.1, you can drop the ball within one club length, no nearer the hole, from the nearest point of complete relief in the general area.

Winter rules: Qualifying cards

To protect the course or carry out repairs, it’s common for clubs to introduce new tees, winter mats and temporary greens over the winter. It might be frustrating, but it gives the course the best chance to be as good as it can possibly be come the summer months.

So you can submit qualifying cards in line with the World Handicap system, England Golf has published a Winter Golf Checklist for when these changes are in place.

Did you know, five key changes were introduced to the Rules of Golf from 1 January 2023? Here's what you need to know.