hand placing a coin next to a golf ball to mark the position

Common Misconception on When a Golf Ball is in Play

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting discussion or debate, if you will, at my local golf shop about a quiz question we were looking at..

The question was about a player who had replaced his ball on the putting green, left the coin marking the ball’s position behind the ball, walked to the other side of the hole to assess the line and then watched as the ball rolled and came to rest in a new position several inches from its original spot behind the coin.

The correct answer is that there is no penalty and the ball is played as it lies from the new position. At this, the other person I was talking to said; How can that be correct?

The player hadn’t lifted his coin so his ball wasn’t back in play yet, right? Well, the quiz answer was correct. The questioner is one of many who share the misconception that a replaced ball is not back “in play” until the ball marker is lifted. Rule 20-4 (When Ball Dropped or Placed is in Play) states, “If the player’s ‘ball in play’ has been lifted, it is again in play when dropped or placed.”

Note both what those words say and don’t say. They say, “it is again in play when . . . placed.” Nowhere is there any mention of the ball marker. In the circumstances described in the quiz question, the player lifted his ball from the putting green without penalty under the authority of Rule 16-1b (The Putting Green – Lifting and Cleaning Ball). “A ball on the putting green may be lifted and, if desired, cleaned. The position of the ball must be marked before it is lifted.”

The definition of “Ball in Play” tells us, “a ball is ‘in play’ as soon as the player makes a stroke on the teeing ground. It remains in play until it is holed, except when it is . . . lifted.”

Note this definition says the player’s ball remains in play until it is lifted (not until its position is marked). Consistent with Rule 20-4, the presence of an object marking a ball’s position does not affect whether the ball is “in play.” Lifting the ball transforms its status from “in play” to out of play, and placing the ball back on the course and releasing it puts it back “in play.” Once replaced, the player’s ball is “in play” whether the coin behind the ball remains positioned there or is removed.

The reason the player was not penalized when his ball moved some time after he had replaced it at rest on the putting green and the reason he was required to play the ball from its new position was he had done nothing to cause the ball to move nor had anything defined by the Rules as an “outside agency” caused the ball to move.

Under the Rules, the forces of wind and water are not considered “outside agencies.” Balls that move exclusively as a result of wind or water are played from wherever the wind or water moves them. Rule 20-3d addresses this in its last paragraph: “If a ball when placed comes to rest on the spot which it is placed, and it subsequently moves, there is no penalty and the ball must be played as it lies, unless the provisions of any other Rule apply.” (“Any other Rule” refers primarily to Rule 18 which covers balls accidentally moved by players, partners, opponents, and all types of outside agencies including fellow-competitors, spectators and animals.)

If marking or unmarking a ball’s position does not affect its “in play” status, what is the purpose of marking? Since the game consists of putting a ball into play from the teeing ground of each hole with a stroke and thereafter in playing successive strokes at the ball as it lies until holed, any lifting of the ball before it is holed is an interruption of the basic principle of playing the ball as it lies. As such, the Rules require the position of a ball to be lifted that will subsequently be replaced and played from its original position to be verifiably identified before the ball is lifted and attach penalties for the failure to do so.

Rule 20-1 (Lifting and Marking) says “the position of the ball must be marked before it is lifted under a Rule that requires it to be replaced” and assigns a one-stroke penalty for failing to observe this requirement. Thus the purpose of marking the position of a ball before lifting is to allow the player to touch and lift it without penalty in addition to providing a reliable and verifiable way to identify the ball’s position so it can be returned to that spot and played as it lies.