Penalty clarifications, and reporting wrong scores

Contributing Columnist

One of the first mandates for a golf official occurs on the first tee. At that point it is necessary to remind all competitors to put a personal mark on their balls so they can identify them as their own when and if the occasion arises during play. The penalty for playing a “wrong ball” is quite severe — two strokes in stroke play and loss of hole in match play — and it is an easy mistake to avoid.

Last year in a USGA qualifying round, a common penalty to an unusual situation arose. Two players were sharing a caddy and didn’t realize they were playing with virtually identical sets of irons. At one point during play on the front nine, the caddie accidentally put Player A’s iron into Player B’s bag. This, in itself, is not a problem, under Rule 4-4a, which states that a player must start his round with no more than 14 clubs. Since the caddie’s error occurred during the round, there would be no penalty (this is a fairly common occurrence, as it is not unusual for caddies to put several putters into the same bag) unless the competitor plays with the wrong club. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened, and it resulted in a two-stroke penalty and an embarrassed caddie.

Playing from a “wrong” fairway is no problem — unless it has been marked as an internal out-of-bounds by the Rules Committee or club administration. However, playing from a wrong putting green — even if you promise to use a putter — would be a violation of Rule 25-3.

Many golfers think they must take relief if a wayward shot finds its way onto a wrong teeing ground. Not so. Other tees are considered “through the green,” and competitors may play from them. In fact the tee markers on the “wrong tees” are considered movable obstructions — but be sure to put them back at the exact spot from which they were moved.

If you happen to be playing a course for the first time and inadvertently play from the wrong tee, then that is a different story. Let’s say you hit from the blue markers when the event is being played from the whites, or you make a wrong turn and end up hitting from the teeing ground for a different hole. In stroke play, it’s a two-stroke penalty, and the mistake must be corrected. In match play, there is no penalty — but your opponent may immediately require you to cancel the stroke and play again from the correct tee.

Whenever you take relief, you must drop in accordance with the Rules of Golf. For instance, you must drop within one club length of the “nearest point of relief” when taking relief from ground under repair, casual water or an immovable obstruction such as a cart path. If you were to mistakenly take two club lengths and then play a stroke, you would be guilty of playing from a “wrong place,” which carries a loss-of-hole penalty in match play and a two-stroke penalty in stroke play.

Worst of all is reporting a wrong score. In match play, if you were to tell your opponent you were lying two when you were really lying three, you would lose the hole — unless you corrected your error before he hit his next shot. In stroke play, you have until the end of the round to correct this type of error. However, if you sign and return a scorecard with a 4 for a hole on which you made 5, you will be disqualified. If you listed a 5 for a hole on which you really made a 4, you will just have to live with the higher score.

And two questions submitted by readers:


A player’s ball is lying on hardpan near a stand of trees. As she considers her next shot, she absentmindedly removes a small detached tree limb that is lying within one club length of her ball. As she prepares to address the ball, it moves. Is there a penalty and from where does she play her next shot?

Rules 18-2a and 23-1. New for 2004. There is no penalty. The ball is played as it lies unless moving the loose impediment caused the ball to move; in which case the ball must be returned to its original position.


A competitor waiting to play her tee shot on the fifth hole decides to take advantage of a delay to practice her chipping. Moving to the back tee, some 30 yards away, she hits four or five chips before returning to play her tee shot. Does she receive a penalty?

The player incurs a two-shot penalty. Rule 7-2. Practice is permitted “near” the next teeing ground. Thirty yards is not considered near.

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