What Happens if a PGA Player Runs Out of Balls?

It shouldn’t happen, a sports person plying their trade on the field of play should be prepared for any eventuality, but sometimes it does all the same. Too many golf balls punted into the woodland, sunk below the depths of a scenic water feature, or just irredeemably missing in action, and suddenly the golfer is left to confront his worst and most embarrassing nightmare. The game is still on, and there are no more balls in the golf bag.

So what to do?

The easiest and most logical solution is to send the caddie to go and get some more. But that isn’t always possible, and in any event, there is usually a penalty applied for any undue delay in play. The second, and often more practical answer, is to borrow from a playing partner or some other player if any is kind enough to oblige.

Why Do Players Run Out of Golf Balls?

In an ideal world, it would never happen, but even the most conscientious and professional golfer can only carry a finite supply of any piece of equipment. It doesn’t matter how many balls the player is carrying, if things out on the golf course take a turn for the worse it may prove not to be enough.

Under the rules (Rule 4-4a to be precise) it is forbidden for a player to borrow golf clubs from another player, but not gloves, tees, towels – or golf balls. When the unexpected happens, the player may need to rely upon the generosity of others, or else forfeit the contest.

However there is one, rather important caveat of which potential borrowers and lenders alike need to be aware, and that is the “one ball rule”.

What is the One Ball Rule?

This rule states that a golfer must use the same brand and model of golf ball throughout the match, and may not deviate under any circumstances from this condition. If a player begins the game with balls by Titleist, he or she may not switch during the game to Wilson Ultra 500 golf balls. Only one model of the ball is permitted throughout.

If he or she is going to borrow balls, it is essential that they are of the exact specification as those that have already been used.

Of course, it may well be that in a minor tournament, or a friendly match played more for leisure than in a spirit of stiff competition, such a rule might be relaxed, and it always pays to check with match officials prior to making any attempt to borrow or lend balls. On a PGA tour, it is a reasonable assumption to make that the rules will be enforced.

Is There a Nine Ball Rule?

It is often thought that golfers are restricted to carrying no more than nine balls out onto the golf course. In fact, this is a fallacy. Whilst there is a custom, indeed almost a ritual, those nine balls are taken out to a game by a player, there is in fact no limit to the number that he or she may have on board.

It is necessary of course to think of the caddy. The person already charged with transporting clubs, towels, gloves, and other items of apparel around may not be keen to also be lugging around a limitless supply of golf balls. But there are no rules as such specifying a maximum number.

Regulation Golf Balls

In fact, the regulations around golf balls themselves are surprisingly complex and precise. It is a stipulation that balls must be absolutely symmetrical. They must not exceed 1.62 US ounces in weight, nor be less than 1.68 inches in diameter.

There is no maximum size for a golf ball, but there is a maximum diameter for the hole, and it is rather in the interests of the golfer that the ball is not larger than the hole into which it is to be hit!

Has This Scenario Ever Occurred?

Many times, at every conceivable level. In the 2022 Hoag Classic, US golfer Rick Garboski thought he’d brought six balls along but had only actually brought three, all of which he duly consigned irretrievably into the water and had to rely on some more being brought to him.

During a 2019 European tour, an embarrassed Eddie Pepperell told playing partners George Coetzee and Martin Kaymer that he had run out of golf balls before being disqualified from the event. So bad had his day been that he didn’t even bother to ask anybody else to help him out of his predicament.

In this instance the sanction was harsh, quite often miscreants escape with a two or even one-stroke penalty. However, at the 2019 Mayakoba Classic Russell Henley had to forfeit eight strokes after realizing that he’d failed to use the same specific brand of the ball when running out of his own supply and borrowing from another player.

It even almost happened to Tiger Woods in 2000 when he nearly ran out of golf balls at Pebble Beach because he’d forgotten to put them back into his golf bag after practicing and was left with just two at the start of the eighteenth (one of which he did indeed lose whilst playing the hole). With the temptation for his rivals to withhold their help and support being so great, this unfortunate error could literally have cost him the Open.

How Can it Best Be Avoided?

To state the obvious, by bringing enough balls along to ensure that the entire round can be completed. But this does rather simplify the whole matter, which is not always straight forward.

Seldom do any golfers, far fewer PGA tour champions, start deliberately with insufficient stock and equipment on board. But golfing professionals, like any other sports people, are human, and when a golfer runs out of balls it is usually the result of exceptional or unforeseen circumstances.

When it occurs during a leisurely few holes between friends or acquaintances at the local golf club it is not usually a big deal for a playing partner to help out. When there is a big-money tournament at stake, perhaps less so.

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Phil Andrews

Phil Andrews is an English-language article writer and author of the 1970s nostalgia fiction novel The Best Year Of Our Lives. His special interests are current affairs, economics and sport - in particular soccer, boxing and golf.

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