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Golfing Blunders: How to Avoid and Score Golf Penalties

Avoiding Golf PenaltiesIn most sports, there are referees and other officials to ensure rules are followed and penalties assessed. In the game of golf, however, that responsibility falls to the players and caddies who are expected to know the rules, including penalties. It's only at higher-level golf competitions that people will see on-course officials. Even then, their job isn't to call out penalties, but rather to assist players to apply the rules.

Penalties are given for a range of offenses, but most are incurred because a ball comes to rest in a place that prevents the player from taking the next stroke without moving the ball. Whether you're practicing in front of your golf course home or trying to figure out which one of your friend group is truly the best at the sport, knowing when to invoke penalties and how to score them can help you play like the pros.

Unplayable Ball Declaration

A player may declare a ball unplayable if it lies anywhere except in a water hazard. An unplayable ball is a one-stroke penalty as well as a drop. The drop should be as close as possible to the spot where the unplayable ball lies and must be within two club lengths of where the ball lied originally. The ball may also be dropped at any point behind the spot of the original lie, as long as that spot is between the hole and the location of the dropped ball. It's important to note that the player is the only judge as to whether the ball is considered unplayable.

There are a number of circumstances where a penalty stroke may be preferred. For example, hitting a ball where it lies when it has landed in rocky terrain could damage the club.

Hitting the Wrong Ball

Hitting the wrong ball, which means any ball other than the ball hit from the tee by that player, or dropped or placed as a substitute or provisional ball, results in a two-stroke penalty. Except for a substitute ball, a player is only allowed to hit the same ball that was originally hit from the tee.

In stroke play, the player hitting the wrong ball must go back and replay any strokes with the correct ball. Failing to correct the mistake before teeing off for the next hole can lead to disqualification. In match play, hitting the wrong ball results in loss of the hole.

The player whose ball was incorrectly played should drop it as close to the original location as possible.

Picking Up a Ball

Picking up a golf ball is allowable without penalty under certain circumstances. These include identification or to see if the ball is cut, has split open or otherwise unfit for play. It can also be picked up so that there is a clear path for another player's ball on the putting green or to clear loose debris, such as leaves, from under or around it. The player must announce his or her intention to opponents and mark the position of the ball. This may be done anywhere on the course, even if the ball is in a hazard area.

When the "one ball rule" is not in effect, golfers are allowed to swap out different golf balls at any point during the round, as long as he or she does so between holes and not during the play of a hole. However, if the player picks up or purposefully touches his or her ball at rest or forces it to move, one penalty stroke must be taken.

Ball Is Literally Unplayable/Penalty Areas

When a ball is deemed unplayable or falls into a penalty area, the player may take one penalty stroke in selecting a relief option to play the ball outside the penalty area. Players can choose to play from within the penalty area without penalty. Penalty areas are defined as bodies of water or other defined areas where a ball is often lost or cannot be played.

Water Hazard

A water hazard penalty occurs when the ball is located in an unplayable section of water. Players can place the ball as close as possible to the area where the ball was originally played and take a one-stroke penalty. Or, they can opt to drop the ball behind the water hazard. However, in doing so, they will need to ensure the point where the original shot crossed into the hazard is between the drop points and the hole.

It's important to include the penalty strokes in addition to other strokes made on the ball. For example, if a player hits a ball into the water hazard, then drops a substitution ball in its place and hits it, that's a total of three strokes: the original, the water hazard penalty, and striking the substitute ball.

Out of Bounds

Hitting Golf Ball Out of Bounds

Out of bounds is defined as being beyond the boundaries of the course or any part of the course that is so marked. Boundaries are marked with white stakes and lines connecting them. They are considered "fixed," meaning players can't move them.

If a player's golf ball lands out of bounds, he or she must take a one-stroke penalty and return to the spot of the original shot to re-play. A provisional ball may be played before searching for the original ball.

While it's true that a ball hit out of bounds isn't necessarily lost, the penalties and procedures related to it are the same as if the ball were actually lost. A player hitting a ball out of bounds must consider that ball out of play.

Lost Ball

A ball is considered lost when it cannot be found after three minutes of searching. This is a change from rules prior to 2019, which allowed five minutes to search. If a player does not find a ball after three minutes of searching, the ball is deemed lost. The player can then take a stroke and distance penalty by playing another ball from the location where the previous stroke was made.

It's important to note that, unlike a ball that can be declared unplayable, a player cannot deem a ball to be lost by declaration. Once a player has made a stroke with another ball, including a penalty of stroke and distance, it doesn't matter if the original ball is found, as it is no longer in play.

Picking Up Another Player's Ball

A penalty may be assessed for picking up another player's ball, but it may not be in the way that one would expect. It is the responsibility of the ball's owner to replace his or her ball to its original spot before playing whenever he or she has knowledge or is certain that the ball has been moved. If a player does not do so, a penalty stroke is incurred.

Based on the rules of the game, players who belong in the same group in stroke play are actually outside influences on one another. There's no penalty if an outside influence moves a player's ball.

Picking up another player's ball should not be confused with striking another player's ball, which will incur a two-stroke penalty upon the offending player.

"Grounding the Club" in a Hazard

Allowing the golf club to touch the ball or the ground during address is known as "grounding the club." A player may decide to play a ball from a hazard, rather than taking the one-stroke penalty. Practice swings can be taken as long as the player does not allow the club to touch the ground, sand, or water. It is allowable for the top of the grass to be touched when taking a practice swing. Hazards include water hazards, such as ponds or lakes, and man-made hazards, such as bunkers.

Grounding the club in a hazard is not allowed. If a player does so, there is a two-stroke penalty. In match play, grounding the club in a hazard results in loss of the hole.

Moving Ball Interference

Interference occurs when a ball comes to rest on any person or outside influence, including another ball. When this accidentally occurs, there is no penalty to any player. The exception is if the ball is played on a putting green during stroke play. In that instance if a player's ball in motion strikes another ball already at rest on the putting green, and both balls were on the green before the stroke, the player whose ball was in motion gets a two-stroke penalty. This also holds true if the ball strikes a bag or other object that then moves the other player's ball. When the ball is played off the green and strikes and move another ball, known as chipping, there is no penalty.

Equipment Violations

Using Wrong Equipment for Golf

Equipment violations include prohibited practices such as carrying too many clubs, using illegal balls, or using clubs that have been altered into an illegal design.

Equipment violations such as these usually result in a two-stroke penalty for every hole in which the illegal equipment was played or used.

Too Many Clubs

Golf's chief governing bodies, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the R&A, have strict regulations on just about everything when it comes to golfing equipment. These include setting limits on the number of golf clubs a player can carry.

Carrying too many clubs becomes a violation when there are more than 14 clubs in a player's bag, the upper allowable limit. It's important to note that lost or damaged clubs are normally not replaced during play.

In stroke play, the penalty is two strokes per hole for a maximum of two holes or a total of four shots. In match play, the penalty for carrying more than the allowable number of clubs is loss of the hole, with a maximum of two holes lost.

Illegal Club

An illegal club is one that has been altered. If the club is bent during normal course of play, it can be taken to the shop for immediate repair and a replacement used until it is returned. If modified in some way outside the normal course of play, the club must be removed for the remainder of the match. If a player attempts to use a modified club, the penalty is disqualification, whether stroke or match play.

In addition to being bent, illegal clubs include those with a clubhead greater than 460cc, clubs with a concave face, clubs with shaft lengths over 48 inches, and clubs that have grips with waisting, bulges, or dissymmetry.

Players incur two strokes for every hole of the round that the player uses an illegal club.

Illegal Ball

The USGA has set forth official guidelines specifying what is legal when it comes to using golf balls in competition. Every golf ball goes through intensive testing to evaluate color, material, striking distance, and manufacturer code.

Officially, a golf ball may not weigh more than 1.62 ounces, nor can it have a diameter of less than 1.68 inches. It must be spherically symmetrical and cannot exceed the USGA's sanctioned initial velocity limit.

Illegal balls include improper size or weight, balls that float, balls that have dimples of the wrong size or depth, and "novelty" balls, such as those that explode or disintegrate. In the case of an illegal ball, the player adds two strokes for every hole during which the ball was in play.

Playing Out of Turn

Whether there is a penalty in golf for playing out of turn is dependent upon whether players are competing in match play or stroke play. There is no penalty for playing out of turn in strike play. However, in match play, a competitor has the option of making the other player re-do their shot in the correct order of play.

If a player plays out of turn, the opponent could cancel that stroke and make the player play again. It should be noted, however, that in stroke play, not only is there no penalty for playing out of turn, but players are often allowed and encouraged to play "ready golf," meaning to play out of turn, but in a safe and responsible way.

Repairing Line of Putt

Players may repair any ball marks and remove any pebbles or foreign objects in their line, but they must do so using only their hand or club. They may not use a towel or cap to fan the ground in an effort to remove sand, foreign objects, or debris, or else they will incur a two-stroke penalty in stroke play or loss of the hole in match play.

Players previously were only allowed to fix ball marks or old hole plugs. But since 2019, golfers are permitted to repair nearly any damage on the green, including ball marks, spike marks, indentations from a club or from the flag stick, and animal damage. They are not allowed to repair natural surface imperfections, aeration holes, or natural wear of the hole.

Cleaning a Ball at the Wrong Time

The penalty for cleaning a lifted ball when not allowed is one stroke. A ball lifted from the putting green can always be cleaned.

A ball lifted anywhere else can also be cleaned, except in certain circumstances. For example, a ball should not be cleaned if it is lifted to see if it is cut or cracked. When lifting a ball to identify it, cleaning is not allowed unless it is necessary for identification and only as far as necessary to identify it.

A player also cannot clean a ball if it is picked up because it interferes with play. A ball cannot be cleaned if it was picked up to see if it lies in a manner where relief is an option. In the case of the latter, cleaning is allowed if the player takes the relief.

Score Card Deflation

Unlike other sports, players in golf are responsible for penalties and accurate scoring, including what is put on the score card. Under USGA rules, someone other than a player—known as a marker—is typically responsible for filling in the score card during competitive play. However, at the end of the day, it is the player who is responsible for providing and signing an accurate score card, not the marker.

The penalty for signing a scorecard that includes scores lower than actually played is a disqualification. Because the lowest score, rather than the highest, is the goal in golf, there isn't a penalty if a player signs a scorecard that erroneously inflates his or her score. However, the higher score stands even though it is incorrect.

Loose Impediment Removal Causes Ball to Move

It is not uncommon for a ball to encounter various impediments along its path, whether dead grass, a twig or other debris. If, in moving loose impediments, a player accidentally moves their ball, they must return the ball to its original position. They must also penalize themselves one stroke.

Players can remove loose impediments without penalty as long as the ball and the loose impediment are not both in a hazard. If loose impediment found within one club length of the ball is removed and causes the ball to move from its original position, it is a 1-stroke penalty, and the ball is placed at the original spot.


In golf, a whiff (also referred to as a ball being whiffed) occurs when a player tries to strike a ball but misses it completely. This is not to be confused with a practice swing, where a swing is also performed but it is intentional that no contact with the ball is made. This contrasts with a whiff, when there is intent on striking the ball.

Under the official rules of golf, any stroke in which a player intends to hit the ball counts as a stroke, even if they do not make contact with the ball. It also doesn't matter how far the ball goes. If the player doesn't miss entirely, but only taps the ball, it still counts as a stroke. Any time a player swings and misses, or swings and barely moves the ball, it counts as a stroke. When the player takes another swing, they're scoring their next stroke after the initial whiff.

Improving Swing Path

In golf, a player cannot bend, break, hack, or otherwise remove anything growing or fixed in an effort to improve his or her line, stance, or area of intended swing. Doing so could result in an unfair advantage and therefore is not allowed. A player that does so will incur a two-stoke penalty in stroke play or a loss of hole in match play.

Keeping Score in Golf

In some sports such as basketball, a breach of a rule can be part of the strategy of the game. For example, an intentional foul can stop the clock or force a free throw. While this kind of move is perfectly acceptable in basketball, breaking the rules is not part of the strategy when it comes to the game of golf. In fact, there are penalties incurred accordingly to discourage any player from intentionally taking an action or otherwise breaking the official rules.

Typically, a penalty is added as a single stroke to a golfer's score, but sometimes penalties are more severe. In cases of serious infractions, such as cheating, the penalty can be disqualification. It is the responsibility of every player to understand the rules and the penalties that can be incurred by not following them.

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