The Story Behind Dropping

Golf is a complicated game. No matter how low your handicap, you will still occasionally end up in a situation where you are dropping a ball. Sometimes dropping can benefit your situation, such as when you get free relief from a condition on the golf course that is not meant to be there (like temporary water or a cart path). Other times, you are dropping because you are in a situation where you cannot or do not want to play your ball as it lies (such as in a penalty area).

In 2019, the dropping procedure saw a major overhaul when it shifted from shoulder height to knee height. However, this was not the first time that this procedure saw a major pivot. In 1984, the Rules of Golf went through another significant reorganization which, at the time, was considered the biggest in the history of the game. While the Rules of Golf had been written jointly by the USGA and The R&A since 1952, each organization was still issuing separate Decisions on the Rules. In 1984, the two organizations came together to write a truly unified code with a single set of Rules and a single set of Decisions.

To take a drop prior to 1984, you were required to stand facing the hole and drop your ball over your shoulder and behind you. Effective in 1984, the Rules of Golf shifted to the shoulder height drop that we are all familiar with.

Dropping Over the Shoulder

The over-the-shoulder drop was arguably one of the longest-standing procedures in the Rules before it was changed in 1984. At least three variations of this procedure were in existence since the early beginnings of the game:

· Throw the ball over the head, with no provision on how far (1776 Bruntsfield Links).

· Face the hole and drop the ball over the head (1809 Honourable Company).

· Drop the ball over the shoulder (1825 Perth).

While the first universally accepted set of Rules was published in 1899, the over-the-shoulder drop was not officially over the shoulder until 1909. Before the Rules specifically mentioned dropping over the shoulder, they required a player to drop over his or her head.

Given the issues you could encounter using this procedure, the length of time it remained in effect was impressive! Let’s take a look back at the over-the-shoulder drop and the main challenge it created.

A player who was dropping had no way to see what was happening behind him or her. Normally this would not be an issue, but the Rules of Golf did have the requirement to re-drop in certain cases. If the player did not correctly complete the dropping requirements on the second drop attempt, the ball needed to be placed on the spot it struck the course on the second drop. This required the player to quickly turn around to see where the ball was going to strike the course.dropping-and-redropping (1)

What happens if the player is dropping in a less than ideal location? If you are facing the hole when dropping and can’t see where the ball is dropped, it’s possible that the ball will be lost in long grass or elsewhere.

Dropping at the Shoulder

After many years of the over-the-shoulder method, the 1984 Rules code introduced a change to dropping from shoulder height. This was often misunderstood to be at or above shoulder height, but the requirement was actually to drop from shoulder height (not above and not below). This method simplified the procedure and allowed a player to see what was happening during the dropping process, making it easier to follow where the ball ended up and when it needed to be re-dropped. The height provided a desired randomness and more often than not gave the player a lie similar to what they would have had if the ball had ended up in that location after a stroke.

The Evolution to Knee Height

When the Rules of Golf were going through the modernization process that resulted in the 2019 changes, one of the goals was to simplify procedures wherever possible. The dropping procedure was certainly an area identified for

improvement, and specifically eliminating the many confusing re-drop requirements provided a major opportunity for simplification.

When the concept of a “relief area” took shape, the thought was that the most intuitive way to remember when you need to re-drop is simply when your ball rolls outside of the relief area. However, with the shoulder height drop, this was likely to happen often because the ball was falling from a good distance above the ground. To ensure that the ball had the best chance to remain in the relief area on the first drop, which would limit the number of re-drops needed and hopefully help with pace of play, it was at first decided to allow players to drop from any height. The any height drop was included in the March 2017 preview code that was released to the world.

When feedback began to pour in, one of the most popular topics was the new dropping procedure. There was concern from golfers around the world that if they were dropping from an inch above the ground, it might look as if they were not in fact dropping. Golfers (and golf administrators) wanted it to be clear that the ball was in fact falling through the air. After the feedback period was over, the USGA and The R&A evaluated this feedback and settled on the knee height dropping procedure instead.

The knee height drop ensures that the ball falls through the air while still creating some randomness in the lie. At the same time, it helps prevent re-drops because the ball is falling such a short distance and it will be more likely to land in and come to rest in the relief area on the first drop.

How to Drop at Knee Height

When dropping under the Rules, the player must drop in the “right way.” This means that the ball must be dropped by the player and that he or she must let go of the ball from knee height so that it falls straight down without the player throwing, spinning or rolling it or using any other motion that might affect where the ball will come to rest. Additionally, the ball must not touch any part of the player’s body or equipment before it hits the ground.

If the ball is dropped in the right way described above, and also first hits the ground in the relief area and stays in that relief area, the ball is in play. If the ball is not dropped in the right way, does not land in the relief area, or rolls out of the relief area, the ball must be re-dropped.

One of the most common misconceptions about the knee height drop is that the player is required to stand when dropping the ball. Even though knee height means the height of your knee when standing, you can sit, kneel, squat, or be in just about any other position to drop the ball, as long as it is dropped from the height of where your knee would be when standing.


In less than 40 years, we have seen three entirely different ways to drop the golf ball and three different approaches to the logic behind these drops. From complete randomness in the past to the simplicity of today, the dropping procedure has taken a long and winding road. However, in its current form, it seems to be producing the kind of results that were intended while also maximizing public understanding of how it works in practice on the golf course.