Doh! Picked Up Your Ball By Accident? Here's What You Need To Do

You've just made a mental error and picked up your ball by accident... what happens next and are you penalised?

Doh! Picked Up Your Ball By Accident? Here's What You Need To Do
What happens if you absent-mindedly pick your ball up in a concentration lapse?
(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

The first thing to stress here is that a number of golfers do perhaps believe that there is a difference between accidental or deliberate movement of your own ball, which will determine whether or not a penalty applies. But generally, the Rules of Golf make no such differentiation.

Picking ball up by accident

Generally the Rules do not differentiate between accidental, absent-minded, careless and deliberate...

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

Yes, there are a number of Exceptions now that do make that differentiation. Perhaps the main ones to remember are that there is now no penalty if you accidentally move your ball (or ball-marker) on the putting green, perhaps on a practice stroke or by dropping your ball-marker on your ball (or vice versa).

And there is now, thankfully, no penalty if you accidentally move your own ball while searching for it. In both scenarios, you must remember to replace the ball in its original location before playing on, estimating the spot to the best of your ability if you can’t be 100% sure.

Accidentally moving ball on practice putting stroke

Move your ball accidentally on the putting green, such as on a practice stroke, and there is no penalty

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

But the underlying default position in the Rules of Golf is that if you cause your ball at rest to move via any means, there is a penalty stroke under Rule 9.4b and, again, you must replace the ball in its original spot before playing on. Accidentally – or perhaps absent-mindedly – picking your ball up would not make you exempt from the penalty.

Indeed, even on the putting green, absent-mindedly picking your ball up without first marking its position wouldn’t constitute ‘accidental’ movement and there would be a penalty stroke under Rule 14.1a for lifting your ball from the putting green without first marking its spot. Jon Rahm made this very mistake in the 2020 BMW Championship and was penalised.

If someone else picks up your ball (or plays it), whether accidentally or not, it is, of course, a different story as the Rules would not want to penalise you in such scenarios over which you have no control.

Someone else picks your ball up

Don't worry - if someone else makes off with your ball, you won't be penalised

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

It must be ‘known or virtually certain’ that someone has picked up your ball or played it (virtually certain means 95% certainty that it happened) and, if that is the case, you simply replace either your original ball or another one (if some scallywag has made off with it!) at the spot where it was originally lying and play on penalty-free, estimating the spot to the best of your ability if you can’t be 100% certain where it was (quite likely if the action has perhaps unfolded a couple of hundred yards away). 

Jeremy Ellwood
Contributing Editor

Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly across the whole spectrum from courses and Rules to equipment and instruction. He also edits The Golf Club Secretary Newsletter, a highly regarded trade publication for golf club secretaries and managers, and has authored or co-authored three books and written for a number of national papers including The Telegraph and The Independent. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 91 of the Next 100, making him well-qualified when it comes to assessing and comparing our premier golf courses. He has now played well over 950 golf courses worldwide in 35 countries, right across the spectrum from the humblest of nine-holers in the Scottish Highlands to the very grandest of international golf resorts, but put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content.

Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf

Jeremy is currently playing...

Driver: Ping G425 LST 10.5˚ (draw setting), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 55 S shaft

3 wood: Ping G425 Max 15˚ (set to flat +1), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 65 S shaft

Hybrid: Ping G425 17˚, Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro Orange 80 S shaft

Irons 3-PW: Ping i525, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Wedges: Ping Glide 4.0 50˚ and 54˚, 12˚ bounce, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Putter: Ping Fetch 2021 model, 33in shaft (set flat 2)

Ball: Varies but mostly now TaylorMade Tour Response