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What Happens When You Play the Wrong Ball?

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Golf is unlike most ball games in that, unlike say football or basketball, each player has their own ball. Bearing in mind that one golf ball looks pretty much like another, this inevitably from time to time gives rise to a somewhat unique problem. What happens if a participant makes a mistake and accidentally plays the wrong ball?

Wrong ball situations in golf are quite unusual but not unheard of. And the rules of golf make distinct provision for such an eventuality. In most cases a penalty is issued, and the severity of the sanction is dependent upon the stage of the game at which the error is discovered and the impact upon match play that it has made.

A Player’s Obligation

It is always a good idea for a player to ensure that the ball which he or she uses carries a unique identification mark. This is especially important when two or more competitors are playing with balls of the same make. If any confusion arises and one player hits the other’s ball, that player’s score will in most circumstances be impacted as a consequence.

This is why many players mark their golf balls with a distinct sign, or color them with a bright marker or felt tip pen. This invariably reduces the chances of an honest mistake being made. Rule 6-5 and Rule 12-2 both state: “The responsibility for playing the proper ball rests with the player. Each player should put an identification mark on his ball.”

Penalties in Stroke Play and Match Play

The typical penalty for playing an incorrect golf ball during stroke play is to be deducted two strokes. In match play it is more usually the loss of the hole. The shots actually played do not count towards the golfer’s score. An exception is when the erroneous ball is played is moving in a water-borne hazard, and in this situation the two stroke penalty does not apply.

Jamie Donaldson and Hunter Mahan play wrong ball at 2014 U.S. Open

The rules of golf are many and complex, and each has its own distinct and identifiable reference. In this case it is Rule 15-3b, which stipulates that a player who has accidentally hit a wrong ball must make amends at the soonest possible opportunity by playing the right ball or introducing a new, substituted ball. Should he or she fail to do so before teeing off for the next hole then that player will be disqualified.

Specific Golf Rules on Playing a Wrong Ball

A wrong ball is one that belongs to any player other than the one making the shot. Examples may include a stray ball, a ball that is out of bounds or one which belongs to another player.

The R&A, which organises The Open tournament and is one of two bodies (alongside the USGA) which governs the sport worldwide, explains it thus:

In match play:

  • If you and your opponent play each other’s ball during the play of a hole, the first to make a stroke at a wrong ball gets the general penalty (loss of hole).
  • If it is not known which wrong ball was played first, there is no penalty and the hole must be played out with the balls exchanged.
Golf Ball

In stroke play, you must correct the mistake by continuing play with the original ball by playing it as it lies or taking relief under the Rules:

  • The stroke made with the wrong ball and any more strokes before the mistake is corrected do not count.

If you do not correct the mistake before making a stroke to begin another hole or, for the final hole of the round, before returning your scorecard, you are disqualified.

Exception – Ball Moving in Water: There is no penalty if a player makes a stroke at a wrong ball that is moving in water in a penalty area or in temporary water:

  • The stroke does not count, and
  • The player must correct the mistake under the Rules by playing the right ball from its original spot or by taking relief under the Rules.

What If a Wrong Ball is Played More Than Once?

This already unfortunate scenario can easily be complicated further when a player continues to accidentally play the erroneous ball. It is always entirely possible that two or more shots will be played before the mistake is spotted.

There is also the possibility that, despite having identified a wrong ball having been played, the error is compounded by playing a s second ball which is also not the correct one. This is known as double jeopardy and, in stroke play, two points are lost for hitting each and every incorrect ball.

Take Steps to Protect Your Original Ball

When all the complications and potential penalties are considered, including the possibility of disqualification, it makes sense to protect one’s original ball through the simple expedient of marking it, that is if it cannot easily be identified or told apart from an opponent’s golf ball from its original logo or markings.

Make sure that every ball played is yours, and not either that of other players or of somebody else who may have lost it along the way.

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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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