Red v Yellow v White Stakes

What are the differences between the red, yellow and white stakes you see on many golf courses, and what does each signify?

Red penalty area stakes
(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

Anyone who’s played a bit of golf will no doubt have encountered red, yellow and white stakes on various courses they have played. Many will know that they denote penalty areas (red and yellow) and out of bounds (white). Many will also know what their relief options are from penalty areas and how to proceed if their ball lies out of bounds beyond the white stakes. 

Here, we recap some of the basics, without going into all the details, and highlight anew one key difference between white stakes and the other two that even some experienced golfers aren’t fully aware of, and which could just save them a penalty next time they get up-close and personal to one. 

Out of Bounds stake

White out of bounds stakes are treated differently to red and yellow penalty area stakes in the Rules of Golf

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Red and yellow stakes are both used to mark penalty areas, which may or may not contain water either sometimes or permanently. If your ball goes into a yellow penalty area, or it’s known or virtually certain that it has (virtual certainty means 95+% certain as far as the Rules are concerned), you have two relief options under penalty of one stroke. You do not have to find and retrieve the original ball – fairly obvious, really, as it might be in the middle of a large lake! 

You can either go back to where your last shot was played from and play again from there, estimating the spot if you can’t be 100% sure where it was. Or, you can identify the point where the ball last crossed the edge of the penalty area (as designated by the yellow stakes) and, keeping that point on a direct line to the flag, drop a ball back as far as you like on that line.

Yellow penalty area drop

If the stakes are yellow, one of your options is to drop back as far as you like on a line to the flag going through where your ball last crossed the edge of the penalty area

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

If your ball goes into a red penalty area, you still have those two options, plus a third option of dropping within two club-lengths of where your ball last crossed the edge of the red penalty area, not nearer the hole and not in the same penalty area. Again, there is a one-stroke penalty. 

Two club-lengths from a red penalty area

Two club-lengths not nearer the hole from point of entry is the additional option from a red penalty area

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

You may also play your ball from within both yellow and red penalty areas if practical (and safe!) to do so, and you may take practice swings that touch the ground in a penalty area and move loose impediments such as twigs, as long as you don’t move your ball in the process. 

What about the stakes, though – what if they interfere with your swing, your stance or where your ball is lying? This is the key difference between red or yellow stakes and white ones, for red and yellow stakes are almost always classed as ‘movable obstructions’ under the Rules and you may proceed under Rule 15.2a. This means you can move them to play your shot freely, and, if your ball moves while you are removing the stake, you are not penalised. You must replace the ball on its original spot before playing though, estimating the spot if you can’t be 100% sure.

Removing red penalty area stake

Most penalty area stakes are movable obstructions that you can move if they are in your way

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

Occasionally, the stakes may be set in concrete or similar, in which case you would have to proceed under the immovable obstruction Rule 16.1a(2). However, free relief is available from immovable obstructions anywhere on the course except a penalty area. This means that if you’re ball lies outside the penalty area you are entitled to free relief, but if it’s in the penalty area, sadly, you are not and any drop would be under penalty.

White stakes are not classed as movable obstructions, even if they are easily movable phyiscally. Rather, they are boundary objects and these are considered ‘fixed’ even if you could easily move them. As such, if your ball is in bounds and a white stake interferes with the lie of your ball, your stance or your area of intended swing, you are not allowed to move it and there is no free relief available. So, if you wish to take relief from it, it would be under penalty under one of the unplayable ball options in Rule 19.

You cannot move out of bounds stakes

You are not allowed to move white out of bounds stakes even if they would be easily movable

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

However, if you remove a stake to facilitate your next shot, but realise your error before playing, you can still escape penalty by ‘restoring the conditions’ under Rule 8.1c - i.e., by replacing the white stake exactly where it was. It's also worth saying that you can stand out of bounds to play a ball that is lying in bounds.

Standing out of bounds to play ball in bounds

You may stand put of bounds to play a ball that is in bounds

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

Finally, if your ball is the wrong side of the white stakes, it is considered out of bounds and your only option is to go back to where you last played from and play again under penalty of stroke and distance. Hopefully, if there was any doubt as to whether or not your ball might be out of bounds, you will have played a provisional ball, which you can then move across to rather than having to make the long walk back.

If there is one key takeaway in this comparison of different-coloured stakes, it is that you can move easily movable red and yellow penalty area stakes to play a shot but may not touch white out of bounds stakes even if they are easily movable.

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