Addressing the ball and associated penalties

Contributing Columnist

A reader asked me what is the true meaning of addressing the ball? Here is how to know whether or not a player is responsible for causing a ball to move before he expects it to.

A player has “addressed the ball” once he has taken his stance and grounded his club, except that in a hazard — where you are not permitted to ground your club — a player has addressed the ball simply by taking his stance. Why is it important to understand exactly when you have addressed the ball? Because once a ball is “in play” and is addressed, you will incur a penalty stroke and be required to replace the ball if the ball moves for pretty much any reason (Rule 18-2b).

There is no requirement that a player address the ball prior to taking a stroke. In fact, many great players avoid grounding their club prior to the stroke, even on putts, and therefore — except in a hazard — never address their ball. Jack Nicklaus always held his club just off the ground as he prepared to play a stroke. Before you think about emulating Nicklaus, however, know that by not grounding your club you are not exempt from penalty if the ball should move — it only limits the situations under which you could be subject to penalty. Plus, many players who don’t possess Nicklaus’ talent may find it difficult to hold the club off the ground with any consistency.

Consider this question submitted to the USGA (Decision 18-2b/4):

A player’s routine prior to making a stroke is as follows: He first grounds the club directly behind the ball with his feet together. Then he gradually widens his feet to shoulder width. At that point, he makes the stroke. If the ball moves after he grounds the club but before he widens his stance to shoulder width, does he incur a penalty stroke under Rule 18-2b (Ball moving After Address)?
No. The player has not addressed the ball until he completes taking his stance, but he incurs a penalty under 18-2a for having caused the ball to move and must replace the ball unless there is strong evidence that wind or some other agency caused the ball to move.

Decision 18-2b/6 deals with a ball that came to rest in a precarious lie in rough. The player took his stance and gently rested his club on the tall grass behind the ball, which then moved. In this case the simple act of resting his club on the grass constituted grounding it and he was penalized under Rule 18-2a and required to replace his ball. In another case a player was penalized for causing his ball to move because of aggressive practice swings in fescue grass very near to his ball. This is an important reminder that most Decisions made by the USGA Rules Committee came to be through real-life and not theoretical scenarios.

When a ball in play moves, the player will not be excused from penalty simply because he has not addressed his ball, and therefore must exercise caution whenever he is in the vicinity of his ball. Player should take extra care when their ball comes to rest in a hazard, because a player who enters a hazard — even without a club — and positions his feet for the purpose of determining how he wishes to play the shot, has addressed the ball and would be subject to penalty if the ball moved. And remember, there may be a presumption of guilt if your ball moves and you’ve been anywhere near it.

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