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USGA Rules: Playing a wrong ball

The GCAA is partnering with the USGA, represented by Jamie Wallaceto do a feature on the Rules of Golf focusing on common situations that players encounter. Each month, we plan to highlight a specific Rule or Rules situation that is relevant to college golfers or one that is often misunderstood. We will highlight what the Rule says and how it is applied to the situation at hand.

In this month's Rules of Golf feature, let's take a look at what happens when you accidentally play a wrong ball. While we all know this happens occasionally in recreational play, you might think it would never happen at the highest levels of the game. The video above from the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst shows this is not the case.

A wrong ball is basically any ball other than your ball in play. To go a little deeper and get technical for a second, a provisional ball or a second ball played under Rule 3-3 or Rule 20-7c are also excluded from the category of wrong ball. This means that you are not penalized for playing a ball other than your original ball in those limited circumstances.

Below are two examples of situations where a wrong ball has been played:

  • A player finds a stray ball near where they think their ball should be and plays it.
  • Opponents or fellow-competitors switch balls and accidentally play each other's ball.

There are two main reasons why a careful player should never play a wrong ball. The first is found in both Rule 6-5 and Rule 12-2, which state in part that, "The responsibility for playing the proper ball rests with the player. Each player should put an identification mark on his ball."

The fact that this is mentioned in two different Rules tells us that this must be important! Placing an identification mark on a ball allows it to easily be identified even when two players are playing the exact same brand, model and number of golf ball.

The second reason is also found in Rule 12-2, which provides players the opportunity to mark and lift a ball to identify it if, for any reason, they are unsure if it is their ball (for instance, the ball is deep in long grass, buried in sand, covered in mud, covered by leaves or other loose impediments, under water, etc.).

Despite the provisions in the Rules above, wrong ball situations still arise occasionally. If this occurs in match play, the ruling is fairly simple — the player who played the wrong ball loses the hole. If the players switched balls and played each other's ball, the player who played the wrong ball first lost the hole as soon as he/she struck the wrong ball.

In stroke play, each player needs a score for every hole, which means that playing a wrong ball is a mistake that must be corrected. The penalty for playing a wrong ball is two strokes, and the correction must be made before the player tees off on the next hole. If it is not corrected and the player starts play of the next hole, he/she is disqualified.

However, if the error is discovered prior to beginning the next hole, the player can then go back and either play the correct ball if it can be located or "proceed under the Rules." Proceeding under the Rules might involve dropping a ball in its estimated location if two players exchanged golf balls, playing under stroke and distance if the original ball can't be located within the five-minute search period, or taking relief from a water hazard if the original ball is known to lie there. Any subsequent strokes that were made with the wrong ball do not count in the player's score.

In the video above, Jamie Donaldson and Hunter Mahan played each other's golf balls from the fairway on the 18th hole in the second round of the 2014 U.S. Open. The error was discovered when they went to mark and lift their balls on the green, which was early enough for the error to be corrected.

Each player incurred a two-stroke penalty and returned to drop a ball at the estimated spot in the fairway from which they should have played their ball.

If you have a Rules question that comes up in a tournament this spring or that happened during a past round, feel free to send it in to us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and perhaps we will address it in a future newsletter. If you have any questions about the topics discussed here, or have any other Rules of Golf questions, please feel free to contact the USGA Rules department at 908-326-1850 (available seven days a week) or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..