There is a time when you can actually touch the sand in a bunker, even with your hand or a club, without being penalized. It happens when you are searching for your golf ball that might be buried in the sand.
This is exactly what happened to me recently in the Hyundai World Challenge at the TPC Craig Ranch in Frisco, TX. After hitting a 5-iron fat and seeing the ball land in the water on the 181-yard No. 15, I went back and used a 4-iron for my next shot. We could see that it landed in the lip of a greenside bunker. On arriving at the bunker, another ball was in the bunker, but mine was not viable.
I remembered Rule 12-1 Searching for Ball; Seeing Ball: “In a hazard, if a ball is believed to be covered by loose impediments or sand, the player may remove by probing or raking with a club or otherwise, as many loose impediments or as much sand as will enable him to see a part of the ball. If excess is removed, there is no penalty and the ball must be recovered so that only a part of the ball is visible. If the ball is moved during the removal, there is no penalty; the ball must be replaced and, if necessary, re-covered.”
My additional problem was that the ball was within inches of the lip of the bunker and there was no way that I felt I could advance the ball even if allowed to replace it. So I had to take an unplayable lie, deciding to drop the ball within two club lengths and staying in the bunker.
In the process of searching for the ball I left a lot of footprints. Was I entitled to rake the bunker? Again, I remembered Rule 13-4 and did nothing except to try and drop the ball so that it would not get into one of the footprints. I was successful, but the ball partially plugged, making by explosion shot more difficult. Two putts from 30 feet, including a come backer from five feet left me writing down a 7 on the scorecard.
Looking in the “Decisions on the Rules of Golf” to make sure I had preceded correctly, I found that a player could also probe with a club if his ball was covered by leaves (classified as loose impediments) in a bunker and was not visible from any angle.
However, if the player touches a leaf on his backswing, he would be in breach of 13-4 and subject to a two-stroke penalty.
If fallen leaves in a bunker seasonally create an abnormal problem, a local rule may be used to declare accumulations of the leaves to be ground under repair.
Another decision noted that a player, who was probing for his ball in a hazard with a club who accidentally kicked his ball with his foot, would be penalized one stroke for moving the ball since the act was not directly attributable to the specific act of probing for the ball.