Jamie Wallace, USGA Rules Department
Accidental movement of your golf ball during a round is one of many areas in the Rules that underwent a lot of player-friendly change in the new 2019 Rules. Still, some golfers may be confused about when there is a penalty, when there is not, when the ball must be replaced, or when the ball should be played from its new location. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common ball at rest moved situations encountered during a round.
Before we dive in, it is important to know that there is still a general principle in the Rules that your ball should be played as it lies and that you should exercise caution around your ball. Generally, you will still be penalized if you move your ball or accidentally cause it to move. However, exceptions have been made in the new Rules for some of the most common times when a ball is accidentally moved during a round.
Searching for Your Ball:
If you are in the process of searching for your ball or trying to identify a ball you have found, there is no penalty if you accidentally cause it to move. As an example, if you are looking for your ball in an area with a lot of leaves or other debris on the ground and you accidentally kick your ball, there is no penalty. Simply replace it as closely as possible to the spot that you estimate where it originally lay. As a second example, if you find a ball in long grass, mark its location, and then accidentally bump and move that ball in the process of lifting it to identify it, there is also no penalty. Simply identify it, replace it if it is yours, and play on. This is all covered in Rule 7.4.
Player Allowed to Lift Ball or Accidental Movement While Applying a Rule:
Obviously, there is no penalty for lifting or causing your ball at rest to move if you are in a situation where the Rules allow you to lift or move your ball. For example, perhaps your ball is right in front of another player’s ball on the fringe and you need to lift your ball to allow the other player to play. There would be no penalty for lifting that ball (after marking its spot), or even for accidentally causing your ball to move while taking reasonable actions to lift it. You will just need to replace your ball back on its original spot. Another example where there is no penalty would be accidentally moving your ball while in the process of determining your nearest point of complete relief to take a drop from a cart path.
Accidental Movement on the Putting Green:
Another case where a penalty has been removed in the new Rules is for any kind of accidental movement of your ball on the putting green. All of the following would be included as long as the movement is accidental: hitting your ball with a practice swing, moving your ball while trying to mark it, kicking your ball, dropping a club on your ball, bumping your ball with your putter in addressing it, etc. In all of these cases, simply replace the ball and play on without penalty. This also applies to any accidental movement of a ball-marker on the putting green. This is all covered in Rule 13.1d. There was previously an optional Local Rule introduced in 2017 that similarly removed the penalty for accidental movement on the putting green. Now this principle is simply part of the Rules of Golf.
Accidental Movement Anywhere Other Than on the Putting Green:
As mentioned previously, accidental movement anywhere on the golf course other than the putting green will generally still be a penalty, unless one of the above exceptions apply. Let’s look at a few common examples. If your ball is in the fairway and you accidentally kick and move it, that will be a one-stroke penalty and the ball must be replaced on its original spot. If you move a leaf next to your ball in the rough and that causes your ball to move, the same penalty will apply. As a final example, if you accidentally touch your ball with your club in getting ready for a stroke and that causes your ball to move, that will also be a one-stroke penalty.
Ball Moved by Opponent or Outside Influence:
So far, we have only addressed instances where you moved your own ball. Now let’s look at cases where someone or something else moves your ball. The term “outside influence” encompasses all other players in a stroke play competition as well as any person other than your opponent(s) in match play, your partner, or either of your caddies. It also includes animals. If one of these outside influences deliberately lifts or touches your ball or accidentally causes it to move, there is no penalty to anyone. Simply estimate the spot where the ball lay, replace it, and play on.
If your opponent deliberately lifts or touches your ball or causes it to move, the opponent will get one penalty stroke. You must then replace your ball, just like in all of the previously discussed scenarios. However, the same exceptions mentioned above that apply to you, the player, would also apply to the opponent. For example, if your opponent moves your ball while searching for it or moves it accidentally on the putting green, there would be no penalty. An additional exception to penalty would be if your opponent marks and lifts your ball on the green by mistake.
Movement by Natural Forces:
The Rules also recognize “natural forces” as something that can potentially cause your ball to move. This covers the effects of nature including wind, water, and gravity. If your ball is moved by any of these natural forces, there is no penalty and you will generally just play your ball from its new location. The one exception to that is on the putting green. If you have already marked, lifted, and replaced your ball on the putting green and it then moves to a new location due to something like wind or gravity, you will replace that ball on its original spot.
Natural forces are essentially the default cause of movement under the Rules. If it is not clear that you, your opponent, or an outside influence caused your ball to move, that movement will be attributed to natural forces.
The major difference between the previous Rules and the new Rules when it comes to a ball at rest moved is the number of player-friendly exceptions to penalty that now exist. As a player, you should still be careful around your ball as there are numerous times when moving it will still result in a penalty. However, many of the ball moved situations that occur most frequently during a round now do not include any penalty.
Enjoy the Fall golf!