May - 2016
Sometimes the Rules of Golf requires you to jump in and invest time reading.
Under the new Revised Decisions from 2016 and 2017, the meaning of "Improve" in Rule 13-2 will help you understand what you can do, and what you can't do.
IMPROVING LIE, AREA OF INTENDED STANCE OR SWING, OR LINE OF PLAY
13-2/0.5 Meaning of "Improve" in Rule 13-2
Q. Rule 13 -2 prohibits a player from improving certain areas. What does "improve" mean?
A. In the context of Rule 13-2, "improve" means to change for the better so that the player creates a potential advantage with respect to the position or lie of his ball, the area of his intended stance or swing, his line of play or a reasonable extension of that line beyond the hole, or the area in which he is to drop or place a ball. Therefore, merely changing an area protected by Rule 13-2 will not be a breach of Rule 13-2 unless it creates such a potential advantage for the player in his play.
Examples of changes that are unlikely to create such a potential advantage are if a player:
repairs a small pitch-mark, smoothes a footprint in a bunker or replaces a divot in a divot hole on his line of play five yards in front of his ball prior to making a 150-yard approach shot from through the green;
whose ball lies in the middle of a long, shallow-faced fairway bunker, smoothes footprints five yards in front of his ball and on his line of play prior to playing a long shot over the smoothed area;
accidentally knocks down several leaves from a tree in his area of intended swing with a practice swing, but there are still so many leaves or branches remaining that the area of intended swing has not been materially affected; or
whose ball lies in thick rough 180 yards from the green, walks forward and pulls strands of grass on his line of play and tosses them in the air to determine the direction of the wind.
Examples of changes that are likely to create such a potential advantage are if a player:
repairs a pitch-mark through the green or replaces a divot in a divot hole five yards in front of his ball and on his line of play prior to making a stroke from off the putting green that might be affected by the pitch-mark or divot hole (e.g., a putt or a low-running shot);
whose ball lies in a greenside bunker, smoothes footprints five yards in front of his ball on his line of play prior to playing a short shot intended to be played over the smoothed area;
accidentally knocks down a single leaf from a tree in his area of intended swing with a practice swing, but, as this was one of very few leaves that might either interfere with his swing or fall and thereby distract him, the area of intended swing has been materially affected; or
pulls strands of grass from rough a few inches behind his ball to test the wind, but thereby reduces a potential distraction for the player, or resistance to his club, in the area of his intended swing.
The determination as to whether a player has created a potential advantage by his actions is made by reference to all the circumstances immediately prior to his stroke. (Revised)